Supporting collaboration between the third and public sectors: evidence review

Findings of research conducted by Scottish Government researchers to better understand current barriers to effective collaboration between third sector organisations and the public sector.

4. Meaningful collaboration

A lack of 'meaningful collaboration' was the second major barrier to successfully working together that was identified in the literature and stakeholder interviews. While both third and public sector organisations might acknowledge the importance of collaborative working, this does not necessarily ensure that any ensuing collaboration will be meaningful and successful. Literature and stakeholder interviews suggest that better understanding between sectors, equal partnerships, open communication, empowerment of communities and trusted relationships are key components of meaningful collaboration. Below we outline these aspects of meaningful collaboration in more detail.

Promoting better understanding between sectors

The research suggests that inadequate understanding between third sector organisations and public sector organisations about the statutory duties and operational challenges that each sector faces can impede meaningful collaboration[54,55,56]. Third sector organisations are not always fully aware of the statutory requirements that local authorities and/or national government are required to operate within. Charities and community groups can lack understanding of the structures, processes and culture that shape national and local policymaking. Moreover, third sector organisations can lack capacity to engage with the public sector and also have conflicting views on policy, making it more complex for the public sector to engage meaningfully with the third sector. This lack of knowledge from third sector organisations about how policymaking works can lead to the public sector becoming frustrated with the third sector and can undermine the third sector's influence on public sector decisions[57]. Interviewees talked about how the third sector not being involved in local authority work and budget planning can lead to the third sector having limited understanding of the budgetary constraints experienced by local authorities.

Conversely, local authorities and/or national government may not appreciate the particular challenges that short-term funding creates for third sector organisations, while policymakers can also lack understanding about the third sector and what it does[58]. Some interview respondents felt that the public sector sometimes views the third sector as an extension of the public sector, rather than an equal partner that is working with them to deliver goals.

Moreover, inadequate understanding of other sectors can lead to third sector or public sector organisations having negative experiences when collaborating. This can entrench negative views about other sectors and lead to further poor collaboration.

It was acknowledged by the interviewees that better mutual understanding of these issues could support closer working relationships between the sectors.

Promoting equal partnerships

Learning from the What Works Scotland project[59] found that meaningful collaboration is hard to establish in situations where all parties in the collaboration don't feel as though they are equal partners[60]. The fact that the public sector awards funding to the third sector can create a power imbalance, with the public sector being perceived to have more power in the relationship.

Interviewees said that the power imbalance in the relationship between the third and public sectors can create difficulties when trying to work together. Stakeholders said that public sector providing funding to the third sector can lead to situations where the public sector expects to be able to direct the work of the third sector; or where the public sector makes all the decisions around a policy or a project and tells the third sector what needs to be done.

Instead, respondents felt that third sector organisations should be seen as key partners to the public sector. Recognising that the third sector has different and complementary strengths could lead to a more productive and collaborative working relationship. As one local government interviewee said:

"It should be spheres in partnership, not tiers. When you have tiers, you then have the whole issue around power and who has power and influence and <…> they're beneath the government or whoever it is who's controlling this partnership."

Research with third sector organisations expressed frustration about not being listened to by their public sector partners, for example with their contribution only being required at some steps of policy making, rather than working together with the public sector throughout the full policy development cycle[61]. Third sector organisations can view this as performative engagement, when the third sector's views are sought at certain points in the process, even if public sector does take this feedback fully into account when developing policy. This further leads to lack of trust and weakens the basis for meaningful collaboration. The public sector also often lacks the time and resources required for meaningful engagement with the third sector. For example, local authorities can have a hard time listening to everyone due to lack of resources and the large number of third sector organisations operating in each local area. Moreover, smaller third sector organisations can also lack resources to successfully engage with the public sector or their local TSI.

Example of sectors successfully working together

A TSI contributor talked about a project where the local council put in place a multi-agency project team bringing together one team member from the NHS board, one from the local council and one from the third sector. Project team members remained working in their sector, but were also seconded into the multi-agency project team. The TSI interviewee said: "The benefits of working really collaboratively together in that team, I think have been really immense. <…> [We were] exchanging ideas, exchanging thoughts about how to support a family, who do you engage with, who can you link with." This has led to increased mutual knowledge and understanding between the partners, exchange of ideas and more effective collaborative working on the project.

Other issues, such as different timescales for the public and third sector were also raised by the stakeholders. The public sector can spend a long time working on a policy, a project, or a fund and then only give a couple of weeks or a month for the third sector to respond. Moreover, third sector organisations can struggle to get replies from the public sector when they contact them, often having to wait weeks or months for a reply. Third sector interviewees said this makes them feel disempowered and that their time is less valuable than that of people working in the public sector.

Lack of resources for collaboration mean that while there is willingness in the public and third sectors to work together at a strategic level, that cannot always be translated into meaningful action at a tactical and/or operational level. Local authority officers do not always have enough resources to work with the third sector, while third sector organisations and TSIs are under-resourced and unable to support relationship building and collaboration as much as they would want to. A third sector contributor said:

"It's one thing to talk at a <…> political or strategic level about the importance of collaboration with the sector, but if you then go down to the [council] officers and say, deliver this in four months, their capacity to meaningfully engage vanishes."

Open communication

Another principle important for meaningful collaboration is open communication between partners. Findings from the literature suggest that discussing and making clear from the outset what is and is not in scope in a collaboration can help to avoid misunderstandings later[62]. Stakeholders also talked about the importance of setting ground rules and clearly defining the collaborative relationship. The use of terms of reference and explicitly identifying who will be responsible for which parts of the collaboration, were mentioned as ways to make sure partners on all sides have a clear understanding of what's expected of them.

The opposite of collaborative advantage is collaborative inertia, which takes place when partnerships are established but fail to generate collective action and make a difference, this can be very costly for all partners[63].

Example of a partnership failing to generate collective action

A third sector collaboration with the Scottish Government was described by an interviewee. They had worked on developing a series of Principles for Positive Partnership that was meant to provide guidance to Scottish Government grant managers and third sector grant holders on how to work well together. This was identified as a need due to frequent moves in post by civil servants, who might find themselves with a portfolio of funds to manage without having a good understanding of the organisations involved, the purpose of the funds or the history of the funding relationships. This work was carried out by third sector colleagues without any additional funding and the interviewee reflected that a lot of time and energy was put into it. Unfortunately, they now come across people who are grant managers who have not heard of this work and felt that despite their efforts, the work had not resulted in any change.

The ability to have open and honest conversations was raised by many interviewees as a key to any kind of healthy partnership. Honest conversations allow the sectors working together to admit that mistakes have been made and discuss what can be done to improve things in the future, without fear of repercussions or allocation of blame. Commitment to such conversations can build trust in the partnership over time. One local government interviewee said:

"I think that's where partnership working is developed, where you do not have to be on your best behaviour all the time, [you can] talk honestly with people, agree to disagree on certain things, but work together on the things that you can work together on. <…> It's not always sweetness and light, there will be disagreements."

However, interviewees mentioned that these open conversations don't always happen and sometimes partners working together only pay lip-service to communicating openly and trusting each other because it is seen as impolite to admit this. Lack of open communication then leads to a poor collaborative working relationship.

Transparency and communication can support a process that allows for a shared understanding to emerge over time, allowing collaborative partners to focus on common goals instead of competing for resources and/or power and influence. Research indicated that keeping the shared goals at the forefront of the collaboration often allows organisations to collaborate better, because they stop caring as much about their individual achievements and start focusing on how to meet their end goals[64]. Interviewees acknowledged that there is a growing understanding in the public sector that the third sector has a crucial part to play in delivering services and support to people and communities. One third sector contributor said:

"Fundamentally, what we're trying to do is to make sure that everybody has an opportunity to flourish, whatever that means. <…> I'm not a big fan of describing the world in three sectors, I think that starts out by dividing us. I'd much rather see us as citizens who want to collaborate and the legal status of our employer should be pretty irrelevant."

Example of shared objectives enabling collaborative working between sectors

A third sector interviewee talked about their experience of attending a resilience network meeting that was responding to a severe weather emergency. They reflected how in an emergency situation organisations from different sectors were able to put aside their differences, share information and successfully work to address the emergency, but that this does not always carry over into more regular day-to-day collaboration: "It's almost like a parallel universe of good collaboration between community organisations, councils, and Scottish Government. <…> The common point of reference is responding to a disaster, so everyone puts their differences to one side and we all work together. So I think that's interesting that around that we're all really good and collaboration works really well, it's just the normal tedious hum-drum of day-to-day living that actually people just retreat to their positions."

In practice, balancing organisational objectives with the shared goals of a partnership can also be challenging. One local government interviewee talked about how in a local Community Planning Partnership everyone, including public and third sector organisations, is meant to work together. However, where an organisation has a target that they have to achieve, such as NHS waiting times in A&E, this pressure can often take precedence for the relevant organisation over supporting a shared improvement in the community overall.

A meaningful partnership should lead to partners sharing power and trusting each other[65]. However, despite some positive developments in relation to open communication and working together on shared goals, a number of interviewees expressed frustration about the difficulties of collaborative working when it comes to sharing power. The interviewees from third sector organisations tended to see local government as reluctant to relinquish any power to the third sector, while local government stakeholders tended to view Scottish Government as too regulatory and not allowing local government enough freedom to work successfully. This makes it harder to build a successful working relationship between sectors. A third sector interviewee said:

"The trouble is everyone's holding whatever power they've got left. It's a very human thing."

Building trusted relationships

The research findings suggest that having successful trusted relationships can help partners to overcome some of the barriers outlined above, and those established, trusted relationships can be key to avoiding barriers to collaboration[66]. However, it was highlighted that it is important to build institutional collaboration (for example, using Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) or concordats, where appropriate) that extends beyond personal relationships. Otherwise, there is a risk that when an individual moves to a different post or leaves an organisation, the collaborative working relationship can break down as well[67]. Overreliance on personal relationships is particularly problematic in contexts where staff turnover is high.

Stakeholders said that the importance of those trusted relationships and the positive impact they can have on a collaboration is often underestimated. One stakeholder talked about the value of having time for informal interactions within meetings because this can foster personal connections, build trust and create stronger collaboration between organisations. Interviewees also noted that the shift to virtual meetings can make it harder to build a strong relationship with a new person – although there is some evidence that the shift to virtual interaction can also be more inclusive – for example of participants with disabilities or from remote locations[68].

Interviewees said that individuals working in the third sector and in public sector organisations should have more time to develop professional skills that allow them to successfully build trusted relationships, such as openness to the perspective of others and willingness to listen. Moreover, interviewees reflected that time is also required to build relationships and organisations have to consciously put in an effort to do it. However, often there's not enough attention paid to building relationships between partners, even though the majority of interviewees agreed that without positive trusted relationships between partners there can be no successful partnership. One third sector interviewee said:

"If everybody is acknowledging that the only way we can get things done is to do that through good positive relationships, that trusting environment that happens on a one-to-one basis predominantly, <…> but we don't put any effort in actually fostering that, we don't value it enough to put in time, it feels to me like we're tripping over our own feet."

Empowerment of communities

Finally, research with third sector organisations indicated that there is a need for more engagement with communities and small third sector organisations, and particularly a need to support greater empowerment of communities and service users within these relationships[69]. Greater empowerment at the level of communities/service users and their representatives can enable them to have more influence over the work of both the third sector and the public sector, designing services that meet the needs of users as effectively as possible. Communities have shown interest for greater involvement in local decision making and those who had an opportunity to take part in participatory budgeting exercise, were positive about the experience[70]. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act also notes that central and local government should support communities to work together, releasing the potential to create a more prosperous and fairer Scotland.[71] Research suggests that the public sector should more frequently use values-based and place-based approaches when engaging with community and third sector organisations and designing services collaboratively[72]. The current emphasis on developing person-centred approaches within public service design, for example within the Scottish Government COVID-19 Recovery Strategy[73], also reflects this ambition.

The majority of the interviewees said that giving more power and resources to communities or service users to help themselves was something that the public sector should do more often and more pro-actively. The public sector can have good intentions to do this, but as one third sector interviewee said, they may also lack confidence that communities are able to help themselves effectively, even if given the resources to do so.

One third sector contributor reflected how government centralisation over time has hurt local communities by taking power away from local structures:

"Over the years of local government re-organisations, <…> we've got bigger and bigger units of governance and since the Scottish [Government] came into being there has been a process of centralisation and sucking power away even from our very centralised local councils."

Empowering communities would mean sharing power between public and third sector and could result in more equal partnerships between the third and public sectors and communities/service users themselves, supporting more collaborative working. The importance of acknowledging communities and service users was summarised by a local government contributor:

"Organisations come and organisations can go, people will join, a councillor or health board can move on after five or six years, but the communities will always be there. So maybe we need to recognise that they're the kind of custodians if you like of their local story, so it's about knowing that."

COVID-19 and meaningful collaboration

COVID-19 brought changes to a lot of the issues outlined above, as many of the usual barriers to working together were put aside to focus on helping as many people as possible. In a recent article reviewing progress in the ten years since the Christie Report was published, Audit Scotland said:

"But it's also important to ask why that happened. The answer? Because it was life and death. There was a clear imperative that trumped everything else. It would be another tragedy if the same urgency wasn't now applied to poverty, education, health and strengthening our communities."[74]

Evaluation of the Scottish Government's Wellbeing Fund[75], one of a series of COVID-19 emergency response funds aimed at the third sector, noted that continuing to build collaborative working relationships, particularly using the local knowledge and expertise of third sector interfaces and others, could be an important element in designing future successful funding initiatives. Audit Scotland said that the public sector should actively seek feedback from communities and the third sector on how they can learn from the successes of working together during COVID-19[76]. Staff from a local authority reported feeling fulfilled by working at the frontline, with communities and the third sector. Staff reported increased wellbeing and job satisfaction while managers reported never having been happier at work because departments were working together, and the organisation was united around a shared objective[77]. These examples show the advantages of meaningful collaboration that can be achieved when sectors are working together.

Example of successful collaboration between the public and third sectors during COVID-19

A third sector interface (TSI) interviewee described how during COVID they worked together with the local authority to support people in the community who were receiving social care support. The TSI mapped out changes and resources available in the community groups and were updating it regularly. TSI would meet with local authority representative weekly, where social workers would bring up cases, saying what support needs were required for each case, for example, medication delivery or a visit. The TSI would then identify what community groups or third sector organisations were able to provide that to respond to the need. The TSI was working closely together with the local authority and enabling local community groups to target their support effectively to help people in the community.

A number of interviewees reflected that the COVID-19 pandemic had changed their relationships with partners from other sectors. There was an agreement that the public sector quickly realised the importance of the third sector, existing relationships became stronger and new ones were built quickly. There was also more joined-up working between sectors.

Example of successful collaboration between local government and the third sector during COVID-19

A local government interviewee talked about a positive experience of working together with third sector organisations to address food support in local communities at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. "There was a complete breakdown of the barriers between the local authority and the voluntary sector in terms of all the food provision. <…> Food banks are really very much in the voluntary sector, and the food for school kids was very much done by local government, but actually in all of it, if we needed volunteers to help deliver school meals, we got volunteers. If the food bank needed our support on something, we'd support them. It became very fluid, the kind of bureaucracy went away, we didn't worry whose role was what, we just tried to do the right thing, and that was really good."

However, there were concerns that these positive changes from the pandemic will not be retained going forward. Interviewees questioned how the more collaborative working approach, increased trust and the feeling of everyone being in it together could be maintained between sectors with some third sector interviewees feeling it was not likely to continue:

"The barrier is a lack of a pandemic or the lack of a crisis, which is kind of cynical, but I think there's an element of truth in that."

The desire to learn lessons from the way services were delivered during the pandemic and to embed change is a key commitment in the Scottish Government's COVID-19 Recovery Strategy[78].



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