Partnership describes an arrangement within which parties, also referred to as partners, decide to engage in a cooperation that can enhance advancement of their mutual interests. Such parties may include individuals, business entities, not-for-profit institutions, government organizations, or learning institutions. According to Walter (2010, 122), partnership prevails within a range of sectors including religious, not-for-profit and political institutions that may agree to cooperate in order to enhance the possibility of realizing their mission and strengthen their extent of operation. In what is normally defined as an alliance, government entities can engage in a partnership so as to realize their national interests, which may sometimes be in contrary to allied governments that may have contrasting interests. Similarly, learning institutions also engage in partnerships so as to increase their overall performance and quality of learning as required by accrediting agencies (Zivile and Ilona 2014, 411). On this note, the agencies evaluate schools on basis of the extent and quality of partnerships that they establish with other schools as well as other organizations throughout the societal sectors. Partnerships are also apparent at personal levels particularly when two or more persons decide to domicile together. As explained by Hucham and Vangen (2005, 72), partnerships present special challenges that the concerned parties have to address upon agreement. Similarly, the overarching goals, the extent of give-and-take, aspects of leadership and succession, as well as the areas of responsibility among other factors must be considered in order to make a partnership successful. Despite these clear cut aspects of partnership, it is obvious that it is not all partnerships that can be successful despite the fact that they may be founded on certain theoretical frameworks (Walter 2010, 123). This paper aims to investigate why partnership working is easier in theory than in practice.
Partnership working is easier in theory than in practice
A huge number of partnerships have been established around the world within the past few decades with some of them lasting only for a short duration while others operate for a long period of time. Some of these partnerships concentrate only on a narrow range of local targets but others try to coordinate a broad range of policy areas in various regions where millions of human populations live and work. There are partnerships that are basically concerned about improving business circles while others focus on social issues (Zivile and Ilona 2014, 413). Regardless on the level of focus that each partnership employs, it is important to understand that most partnerships have been created primarily to perpetuate a state-led strategy to support the dispensation of programs at the local level. A huge number of studies on this subject have been conducted and they show that partnerships are valuable instruments that organizations can adopt to overcome limitations of policy and governance frameworks. As argued by Hucham and Vangen (2005, 81), contemporary organizations are prevailing in complex societies where the existing frameworks and governance approaches seem to have limitations in offering satisfactory solutions to rapidly increasing social problems. However, this does not indicate that the prevailing frameworks will have to change since there is no guarantee that an alternative framework will perpetuate a higher level of satisfaction. While this portrays there is a natural resistance to overall social reform, establishing partnerships can be a great stride in enhancing overall performance in various organizations (Walter 2010, 124).
Partnership working between organizations can help to build a strong and effective integration within and across organizations. This means that partnering organizations are able to take a joined-up approach in planning and delivering integrated services that can ultimately benefit the service users. On the other hand, the partnering organizations are able to engage in a joint pursuit for common interests that may be shared by other interested stakeholders. This however demands that the partnering entities develop a common goal that is guided by a common understanding of the problem as well as the specific role that each partner should play in solving the problem (Zivile and Ilona 2014, 415).
Partnerships are also important in that they enhance social justice especially with increased complexities that affect social stability and contribute to increased social issues that negatively affect communities. A partnership approach that is mutually shared and community oriented perpetuates explicit interests that would ultimately benefit the partnering participants as well as the wider societal members. For instance, the US citizens have not had the political will to establish a collective health insurance that perpetuates universal health benefit. Promoting community oriented partnerships can help to improve opportunities for universal health that would be accessible to all. Similarly, public health policy experts and practitioners perceive partnerships as an appropriate means for creating consistency in public health (Hucham and Vangen 2005, 85).
Certain organizational motivations further justify the need for entities to engage in partnerships. Such motivations are not limited to the health discipline but they are relevant to any organization that is interested in reaping a significant level of benefit that can subsequently perpetuate the realization of its overall goals and mission. According to Walter (2010, 132), interest in partnerships may be driven by a wide range of mutual benefits. Such benefits may include the ability to access additional resources, higher credibility, and better understanding and receptiveness to societal needs among others. Evidence from the resource dependency theory shows that organizations in search for additional resources can be motivated to engage in partnerships so as to supplement the limited resources that they generate from their respective federal and state governments. State governments can as well mobilize health and social service organizations to engage in partnerships so as to be able to accomplish a huge amount of purpose with fewer resources thereby promoting the status quo rather than challenging it (Zivile and Ilona 2014, 429).
Partnerships are also appropriate in that they create a greater scope through which new and innovative approaches can be tested. This is particularly the case because partnering stakeholders, coming from distinct policy perspectives, can be able to create broader dynamism within which sharing of new ideas; innovativeness, practice, as well as risks can be controlled. Partnerships also allow individual stakeholders to test new perspectives, and if need be, withdraw from potentially unproductive or challenging experiences. On this note, effective partnership working confronts existing approaches by importing more effective ways of working through integrating well managed sectors and organizations (Hucham and Vangen 2005, 92).
Given the wide range of benefits that organizations can be able to generate from partnerships, it is obvious that every health and social organization should increasingly work in partnerships along with other societal organizations. Theoretical frameworks as well as models indicate that partnership working is an easy step for any health and social service organization to implement and ultimately be successful (Zivile and Ilona 2014, 436). Theories of change are the most appropriate theories that exhibit how easily partnership working can be realized within organizations. These theories ask organizations to explore the various outcomes that partnering stakeholders wish to accomplish for service users, the current context within which they operate as well as the potential ways through which expected outcomes can be realized and issues to be resolved. This can be summarized in the figure below (Walter 2010, 137).
As explained by Zivile and Ilona (2014, 459), the use of this theoretical framework prevents partnering organizations from engaging in controversial dialogues about issues pertaining to process and structure, which might ultimately dominate the basic inter-agency debate. Instead, this theoretical model encourages the organizations to ask themselves questions pertaining to the outcomes that they wish to achieve, their current context and the processes they need to achieve the desired outcomes. This allows for the reconciliation of varying interpretations about desired outcomes as well as the current context before the partnering entities can move into the subsequent steps. This makes it easy for organizational managers to see partnership working as a means to realizing a certain end (Walter 2010, 142). While partnership working should not prove to be an end in itself, theoretical frameworks and models help to exhibit how easy collaborations can happen for busy managers that are tasked with the responsibility of establishing a new partnership. However, without such a theoretical framework, it is often easy to lose focus of why a partnership was significant in the first place as well as the outcomes it was intended to deliver. On this note, using theoretical framework makes it easy to establish partnerships by making them the central aim of focus while encouraging the partnering institutions to focus on outcomes (Hucham and Vangen 2005, 102).
Having clarified the expected outcomes, theoretical frameworks further provide partnering organizations with the scope of the kind of organizations that they need to partner with as well as the manner in which they need to work with these partners. Depending on expected ultimate outcomes, partnering organizations may desire that a wide range of organizations would be involved (Zivile and Ilona 2014, 470). The range of options for the potential partners may depend on the breadth as well as the depth of partnership that may be deemed appropriate. Health organizations can for example consider attributes like information sharing, mutual consultation, and joint management in establishing whether potential partners are fit for intended purpose. This theoretical interpretation portrays partnership working as an easy activity as partnering organizations already have specific aspects that they use as the basis for reference when collaborating with other organizations (Walter 2010, 144).
Partnership working is further made easier by the fact that theoretical frameworks provide different levels, which include individual, organizational and structural levels, that partnering agencies should consider in order to establish effective partnerships. As argued by Zivile and Ilona (2014, 498), while there is a lot that is often done to encourage collaborative working between individual practitioners and local organizations, theoretical frameworks dictate that more actions are needed to help address the administrative and bureaucratic obstacles to partnership working. Zivile and Ilona argue that such obstacles are usually engrained in the existing organizational systems and structures given the fact that partnering organizations have unique systems that are based on underlying divisions between completely distinct organizations with distinct goals, priorities, values and working procedures (Zivile and Ilona, 511). A theoretical partnership framework, which is presented in a series of interconnected circles, provides partnering organizations with the levels that should govern activities within a partnership as each level has the ability to influence activities as well as trigger support by the others. On this note, the way in which partnering individuals behave is partly influenced by values and policies of their respective organizations while on the other hand being shaped by the structural barriers prevailing at the central government level (Hucham and Vangen 2005, 112). On the other hand, the structural barriers are dependent on the attributed of certain types of organizations, which depend on the individuals operating in these organizations. This makes partnership working an easy venture as partnering organizations would use these levels as the basis for reference when designing policies and strategies intended to achieve true partnership. This can be summarized in the figure below (Hucham and Vangen 2005, 114).
Although these theoretical frameworks portray a significant level of success in establishing partnerships, it is obvious that this is only easily achieved in theory and not in practice. This is because there is a wide range of obstacles that hinder what is portrayed in theory from being successfully put into practice. Lack of clear and specific goals often makes it difficult for partnership working in practice. As explained by Walter (2010, 147), although most partnering organizations may agree on broad aims and goals that should govern the partnership, their more specific and detailed goals may be unclear or the involved partners may have conflicting understanding about what the partnership goals mean. As a result, this attributes to drastic misunderstanding, lack of coordination, and ultimate conflict between the partners. This is particularly the case when some participants have unmentioned or hidden agendas, which attributes to “turf wars” especially when different partners start fighting to gain control over certain issues. This undermines collaborative approaches, which eventually complicates partnership working (Zivile and Ilona, 533).
Further complexities linked to partnership working in practice emerge from the fact that partnerships are often incapable of addressing profound power imbalances between the incipient partners. According to Hucham and Vangen (2005, 126), partnering agents that hold super ordinate positions like professionals and managers and who are traditionally accustomed to dominating decision making tend to dominate partnerships. Such dominance may be deep-rooted especially because of the historically embedded perceptions on validity of “scientific and professional” on one hand and “traditional and local” on the other. The result of such perception and dominance is asymmetrical representation of views where views of those already in higher positions are often prioritized. This means that the way partnerships are organized as well as structured only perpetuate rather than mitigate imbalances (Walter 2010, 149). The ultimate outcome that results from these structural imbalances is that communities and other local players taking part in partnerships only assume subordinate roles where their contributions are only restricted to issues of service delivery and not design. This makes partnership working a complex activity as certain players do not get an opportunity to participate in managing activities and setting priorities (Zivile and Ilona, 541).
High level of confidentiality and unwillingness to share important information is another reason why partnership working is complex in practice than in theory. As explained by Hucham and Vangen (2005, 130), the dilemma of sharing information among the partnering agencies is well documented as a significant barrier to partnership working. This is because agencies are hesitant about the amount of organizational information they should share with their partners especially because they are not sure if that information will end up being used only for the agreed purpose. This presents organizational challenges as partnering organizations cannot be able to successfully coordinate partnership programs or overcome specialist concerns (Zivile and Ilona, 560).
Theoretical structures that most partnering organizations focus on when establishing partnerships present capacity building gaps, which further complicate partnership working in practice. According to (Walter (2010, 150), complex difficulties often emerge when the government tries to assign different sectors in delivering policy when the involved stakeholders lack the organizational, monetary or specialized capacity to contribute. Sufficient evidence indicates that there have been challenges when governments have resolved to outsource the required capacity before the involved partners are able to provide it. Among most local partners, lack of community capacity constantly undermines the ability of local participants to engage in partnerships. This is because such local players find it challenging to build trust with international players, which ultimately complicates partnership working in practice (Zivile and Ilona, 581).
Partnerships are important arrangements that enable interested players, who are often referred to as partners, to come together and pursue common goals and interests. This is applicable in a wide or organizations that range from government and political entities, learning institutions and not-for-profits organizations. Studies on this subject show that partnerships are crucial as they enable involved partners to share resources, expertise and skills, as well as reduce operating costs, test a wide range of innovations, promote social justice and reap a wide range of organizational benefits. Theoretical evidence confirms that partnership working is easy for organizations to implement and be successful. The theory of change presents a precise framework that partnering organizations should use as a basis for operation, which eliminates complexities that might affect potentially successful partnerships. According to this framework, partnering organizations should only focus on desired outcomes, view partnership as a means to a certain end as well as employ certain levels of operation. This is however only applicable in theory as there are various obstacles that complicate partnership working in practice. Such obstacles include lack of shared goals and aims, reluctance to share information, capacity building gaps and power imbalances. As a result, it can be concluded that partnership working is easier in theory than in practice.
Hucham, C and Vangen, S 2005, Managing to Collaborate: The theory and Practice of Collaborative Advantage, Routledge, Westport, CT.
Walter, M 2010, “Partnership: No One said it Would be Easy 1”, The Town Planning Review, vol 81, No.4, pp.122-159.
Zivile, T and Ilona, A 2014, “Development of Public-Private Partnership: Managerial Aspects”, Business: Theory and Practice, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 411-621.