24 October 2008
Partnerships have become an important way of improving the efficiency of the public sector. However, there are risks involved. These can often be overlooked but are easily overcome if you are aware of them. Lynn Drennan explains
In recent years there has been an increasing drive to tackle major societal risk issues and improve public sector efficiency through a partnership approach. Sir Peter Gershon's 2004 review sought to encourage the public sector to find efficiency savings in back-office, procurement and policy-making functions, which would release resources for frontline services. Some of the recommendations on how such efficiencies might be achieved involved formal partnerships between local authorities and others.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith gave a wider view of the benefits of partnership when the policing green paper was published in July 2008. She said: 'Efficient and effective policing increasingly requires the involvement, support and expertise of a wide range of partners… partnerships are now seen as a key part of the delivery landscape, with the crime reduction agenda shared across a range of bodies.'
Alarm, the national forum for risk management in the public sector, has seen a massive increase in the level and extent of innovative partnership working among its members. Whether these initiatives are driven by the need to 'do more with less', to achieve efficiency savings, to avoid duplication (and gaps) in tackling a threat, or to attain better results, success can often be measured by a tangible reduction in losses and improved relations with major stakeholders.
Working in partnership, however, carries its own risks. The 2006 Alarm benchmarking risk management survey, which was developed in collaboration with the Audit Commission, found that the risks associated with partnerships had jumped from fourth to second place in the league table of 'top five risks' compared with the 2003 survey findings.
Moreover, responses indicated that while risk management featured clearly in statements of internal control, internal audit, departmental, project and corporate plans – all scoring positive responses of between 75% and 95% – it was far less prevalent in partnership arrangements, where only 44% of respondents were able to give a favourable answer.
In May 2008, Alarm's Northeast group held a workshop for those with experience in this area. This resulted in a publication, Partnership risk, which highlighted the main issues and strategies needed to deal with threats to successful partnership arrangements. These included: ensuring partnerships offer the best route to achieving your objectives; getting the choice of partners right; anticipating problems and how to handle them; building in steps to deal with problems as they arise; and putting the details in writing – even with a small local partnership, a written agreement clarifies commitments and responsibilities.
Other recommended strategies included: getting expert/technical support to draw on expertise in data security, IT and insurance; preparing for potential tensions, such as the pursuit of certain agendas, partners feeling left out, and the varying cultures of the participants; being aware of reputational risks, such as a failure on the part on one partner that might reflect badly on others, particularly the predominant partner(s); considering public perceptions – what you think you are doing and how this is perceived by the public, as end users, might be quite different, so excellent communications are essential; and dealing with change – when project milestones are reached, or external factors alter, there will be a need to review, monitor and revisit the partnership aims.
While successful partnerships undoubtedly bring benefits, they are not a simple solution. The Audit Commission's 2005 publication, Governing partnerships: bridging the accountability gap, said: 'Local public bodies should be much more constructively critical about this form of working; it may not be the best solution in every case.
'They need to be clear about what they are trying to achieve and how they will achieve it by working in partnership. This clarity will come when public bodies ask themselves two broad questions: How do partnerships add value? Who is in charge of partnerships?'
Alarm's annual awards scheme seeks evidence of collaborative or partnership working in each of the entries under the categories: assets, people, operational and strategic risk. Evidence to date shows that partnerships are increasing and local authorities, the blue light services and the third sector are working together to find innovative and cost-effective solutions to problems as diverse as antisocial behaviour and obesity.
Partnerships can be hugely successful, but only if the threats are identified and the risks managed.
Partners in crime reduction: countering theft through working together
In 2003, Derbyshire County Council found itself the target of organised criminal gangs who were stealing expensive IT equipment from schools, and causing damage to buildings as a result of forced entry.
In some cases, these thefts involved large quantities of laptops and data projectors from single sites. In 2003/04, schools made 128 insurance claims, with losses totalling over £259,000. The theft of equipment had a major impact on the provision of education within the school communities.
To counter this, the council's risk management team collaborated closely with major partners, including the police and fire services. In terms of physical protection, the schools were provided with better alarms, security marking systems, secure laptop stores and data projector entrapment devices.
The council also worked with the police technical support unit to test tracking devices in IT equipment. Closer working relationships with the police led to the establishment of police offices in a school and a library, and increased numbers of officers and dogs were employed in patrolling school grounds.
Council properties were also used as training grounds by the fire service and police activities, including firearms, hostage and anti-terrorist training, and dog handling.
As a result of these initiatives, there was a massive drop of 82% in claims costs over a four-year period, with only 41 claims in 2007/08 and total losses reduced to £45,000.
Looking to the future, Derbyshire County Council has adopted 'secured by design' principles for its new building projects and has made the risk management initiatives part of the mainstream security measures across its services.
The council is also developing cross-border working with other police forces and a number of multi-agency emergency exercises are proposed at its sites this year.