On coalitions and partnerships

How do we identify and account for the value in bringing a range of diverse people, perspectives and organisations together, initiated by a challenge or local imperative for action and change? If there is a sense of collective value, what are the possibilities we can achieve by working together during and after any period of change or crisis? And how do we organise to do this? If we accept the premise that form follows function, we should be clear about what we want to do first… what are the reasons people are interested in working together. In local public service, this is in all likelihood a result of a whole population challenge such as unemployment, poor health or anti-social behaviour.

Do we share a common, uniting purpose?

We must begin by figuring out if we share a common, uniting purpose and, if it is suitably compelling, clarify our actions in respect of the purpose and find ways of organising around these actions.  We need to do this in ways that don’t create additional burdens on participants and their organisations, dilute individual efforts, create competition between groups or open up our collective selves to accusations of cronyism. We must recognise we all have influence over only a part of the wider system and that collectively we have more likeliood of achieving system-wide change. To do so requires a focus on system-wide, whole population outcomes, not on our own narrow organisational or service measures of success. This is no mean feat in itself.

There are various mechanisms by which we can clarify and reach agreement on a shared purpose amongst disparate parties. Ostrum’s ‘core design principle 1’ is about shared purpose, and the ProSocial methodology offers a way to help us clarify this.

Are there shared actions we can align around?

Agreed principles can be underpinned by additional themes that we could act upon (the ‘how’). Drawing on Lakoff’s work on framing and the power of narrative it is important. Such work would develop the ways in which we want to talk collectively about the future, frame the changes we’d like to see and achieve impact by the consistent use of those frames. It can be light touch, support everyone’s individual endeavours, and achieve some collective impact. It’s easily adopted by others and scalable. The premise is that changing the narrative is necessary to change the action and the thinking. Simply calling for system change or new economic models, even when illustrated by concrete examples across a range of domains (as we can) is not enough. Reframing the debate and ensuring participants have a common understanding is often the first step to systemic change.

The challenge is to do this in the lightest touch way possible – such that the task doesn’t require the creation of ‘a thing’ to achieve its aims. It is more closely aligned with an alliance or co-operative than it is the establishment of too much process or procedure. Where else do we see attempts at co-operation or co-ordination of seemingly disparate activity towards a common goal or ambition? Below are some examples. 

US Republicans

The Powell Memo in the 1970s set out the actions needed to achieve power, on top of a recognition that to win power they needed to reconcile different factions within the party. They have largely been successful at framing the national debate in terms of core conservative values across a range of issues sand sticking to a consistent framing that presents these issues by invoking conservative frames that speak to their base. The intent was to win power, to consolidate conservative values in the US, to support those who embody those values. This was achieved in part through systematically investing in the infrastructure to push these narratives – think tanks, scholarships, media, books, leadership training, professorships and so on. Grover Norquist’s Wednesday Meeting of the conservative coalition is one of the better known. They invested in the long-run as many of these elements took some time to bring about impact.  

For partnership working, we might ask whether it is important to frame our narrative and therefore seek to shift the debate by using a common framing on key issues? In doing so what influence can be generated? Can a model like this help to support each organisation’s agenda even when they are not the same, knowing that they will eventually all benefit from this approach? What infrastructure could be helpful to secure long-term system change, and how might we invest in it? Perhaps there is a version of the ‘Wednesday Meeting’ that could be initiatiated?

Team of Teams

This was developed in the US military in the 2000s to better co-ordinate activity and information-sharing across a range of different teams and so enable a faster response to a rapidly evolving opponent. The Team of Teams approach speeds up decision-making and responsiveness to emerging situations on the ground that traditional, hierarchical, command-and-control mechanisms were not suited for. This was achieved by the establishment of an aligning narrative that clarifies strategic intent and unites disparate teams. Hosting a regular mass videoconferencing forum involving thousands of participants from different geographically and functionally dispersed teams enabled discussion of “the conditions of their environments, potential opportunities or threats they are observing in them, their intended next steps, and why what their team is observing matters to other teams in the organization”. 

For partnership working, we might ask how to build in fast and appropriate sharing of information and sense-checking data and intelligence, a potential massive benefit to a collective of organisations, allowing partners to triangulate what’s happening in communities and reality-check their own blind-spots. 

The Co-operative movement

The creation of business principles to guide individual work and (in Rochdale) the establishment of a shop in which to sell their goods. This movement was a response to increased pressure from the changing market system as the emergence of mass production and changing labour practices made individual trades less viable over time. The attempt to solve common problems by combined action is at the root of cooperatives. Members become bound to each other through values and principles as well as through their shared experiences in the cooperative. Cooperatives attempt to balance individuals’ needs with those of the community as a whole by encouraging individual empowerment within the structure of membership and responsibility to the group.

For partnership working, we might ask how to ensure each member or participating organisation can pursue its own aims within a structure or diverse group that provides a common set of values or principles. It is not necessary for agencies to lose their identity in organising around a system that is failing those it is designed to serve. 

Ostrum’s Core Design Principles 

The application of Elinor Ostrum’s core design principles for the stewardship of common pool resources has been adapted for the effective operation of groups and groups of groups, including the clarification of shared purpose, in a methodology called ProSocial. This enables participants to build productive, equitable and collaborative groups (and groups of groups) working towards a shared purpose.  Through a series of workshops and activities the principles are applied in practice. 

For partnership working, we might reflect on how such a method might help broker a common purpose amonst diverse participants. This is a method that seems particularly suited to helping an emerging alliance clarify a shared purpose and manage activity towards that purpose. 

The Mafia

The establishment of different territories and/or ‘business interests’ for the five crime families in New York enabled them to organise for the common ambition, to ensure that they were not vulnerable to the emerging FBI and anti-mafia efforts and ensure that they figured out how to share emerging markets (gambling, drugs, etc) and do so without encroaching on each other’s turf. This was based on a recognition that there was enough business to go around and that they are stronger together (against law enforcement forces and upstarts etc) than if they are at war with each other (which they often were). Violent measures were handed out against those who didn’t observe the fundamental (enforcement action against those acting against the interests of the group is also covered, in less draconian terms of course, by Ostrum’s core design principles).  

For partnership working, we might ask how to effectively cooperate for the good of everyone, such that they can achieve their own aims (co-operation) whilst achieving the aims of the collective (collaboration). Within a system different organisations may very well be acting against each others interests, often unknown untill the system view is taken. Being bound by higher-level principles that make co-operation more desirable than competition is key. The way of achieving this doesn’t have to be bureaucratic in setting up ‘institutions’ or commissions but can be ad hoc and inclusive with clear purpose. 

Acting in partnership

The following actions flow form the above discussion and might support efforts at partnership working. 

  1. Focus on actions that build rather than building a structure.  This is the point about developing the mortar that holds the bricks together rather than just stacking them. We need to take forward work that creates the infrastructure for long-term change.
  2. Focus on barriers and gaps to change. Identify and then dig into these, identifying the things that might prevent us form achieving change and collective impact and finding ways to overcome them. 
  3. The intention should be to host some one-off sessions over the weeks and months that follow, with no long-term commitment towards building a structure, just collectively putting the mortar in place. Each session addresses an issue or theme and builds on our existing understanding of the system. Each concludes with an agreement to continue, pause or stop, depending on how the activity is playing out across the system and participant’s commitment to the journey. 

Shifting systems is not a one-shot exercise, nor is the work of a collaborative ever truly complete, for in complex challenging systems each intervention changes the system a little, in often unknowable ways, and as such the wrok continues. Recognising this, in a world in which we are taught anything less than solutions, closure and completed tasks is a failure, is everything.

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