The challenges of joint working and how to make it a reality

Some reflections on partnership working by our Chief Executive, Angela Morgan

All those working with young people know that organisations and individuals working together is the key to success. But there are challenges to be overcome, and perhaps the most challenging thing of all is learning to trust your partners.

It reminds me of the film, Annie Hall. There is a wonderful scene where Diane Keaton, as Annie, and Woody Allen as Alfie are talking to each other and at the same time what they are really thinking pops up on the screen. That was ahead of its time! Joint working can be much the same if the ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ conversations don’t match. You can have all the paperwork and joint strategies you like but at the end of the day you have to trust the other people in the partnership for it to work, and if you don’t know each other very well then it is difficult to do that.

One such partnership started after a conversation I had with the police seven years ago. A senior officer asked me how his colleagues could access our service. After a persistent process we accessed money to develop a pilot; we persuaded folk in government and an independent charitable trust to support us and we delivered a service to help young people move on from offending behaviour and begin to believe in themselves and live productive lives. That project, Includem IMPACT, has now been independently reviewed and has contributed hugely to harm reduction in Glasgow.

I mention this project because it threw up a vast array of concerns, anxieties and apprehensions for all the partners. “Could we trust our partners to deliver what they said they would?” “Are they just using this project for their own ends?” “Is it their own agenda they’re following rather than ours?” “Will we compromise our relationships with young people by working in conjunction with the police?”

Those concerns were in the early days, and I’m very glad to say we’ve been able to overcome them and we’ve learned to trust one another and truly work in collaboration.

A very helpful piece of work by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health helps explain the processes that have helped us to develop the relationships that are needed for joint working to succeed. They define three domains for partnership. The first is overseeing the work; the second is doing the work and the third is managing the work.

In effect, the conclusion is perhaps an obvious one – it is through the processes of actually doing something together that relationships are built and trust is established.

This is how the negative assumptions were overcome in my earlier example of the collaboration with the police. The first contact with the young people is by a member of Includem staff and a police officer doing a joint door-knock and home visit. Once our worker has trained the police officer how to knock on a door in a way that doesn’t appear like a police raid, then the partnership actually works very well in securing the interest of the young person – and often their parent or carer in the potential to work with Includem and then a relationship has been made.

The partnership continued to develop when the police were satisfied that our workers could support young people with the most complex and pressing needs, including histories of violence. They tested us, and we demonstrated that we actually could cope and that shifted their attitude.

Once we were both confident with each other, we started to share intelligence – the police pass us information so we can support the young people, and we pass on information we hear so the police can intervene before violence occurs. Gradually we have worked through the grey areas and worked together to benefit our communities.

The third level – management – is also important. We set up a joint-governance group which strategically oversees the project. We have health, police, local authority and government sitting round the same table giving a sense of shared stake in the success – or failure – of the project. We share the same aspirations – and that drives the project forward.

So we know that working effectively with the most excluded young people requires effective interventions and relationships with a purpose. So what if we map those features of effective relationships onto how we work with each other. What do we do in terms of time, respect, honesty, stickability and brokerage? What about the concept of hard-to-reach partners? I’m sure we can all think of those! How do we spend time, and patience, working with them? Are we ourselves a hard to reach partner? These are questions worth asking.

I think this is where the current fashion for improvement science, with its focus on small incremental tests of change is a sanity saver! In a world of overwhelm, what improvement science allows us to believe is that by doing something small we can actually make a difference and be in control. In terms of partnership working, what we have under our control is how we treat each other and our skills in interaction – hard though that often is.

We also need to remember we are all human! I’m struck by a quote I heard recently, that partnership is an unnatural act between unconsenting adults. I’ve heard many of these sorts of references, and I always get the best laugh at conferences when I tell people that the German for ‘partnership’ is ‘partnerschaft’. I used a picture at a recent conference of a whirling dervish. Part of the relevance is that dervishes are able to spin and not fall over by holding their thumb out and focusing on it. The result is that the world is spinning round them, and they are focused on just one thing. In our world, our thumb is that young person. If we can focus on them, all of us, from our different perspectives and backgrounds and wherever we ourselves are spinning, we can all make sure that we are facing the right direction – together.

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