Strong partnerships are an essential way of achieving short and long-term policy goals for any government. Knowing how to create the right environment for these to thrive, and defining what role governments should play, is not straightforward.
During our recent Digital Frontrunners workshop in Brussels, in collaboration with the Department of Work and Social Economy (Flanders), we asked policymakers from across Northern Europe to reflect on the partnerships they’d been involved in: what did the journeys look like? What made them a success? What made them fail? What role did the government play?
To kick conversations off, we shared Tuckman’s stages of group development with the group; could these be applied to the formation of partnerships? Tuckman’s stages illustrates how teams form and what happens when they begin to work together, what it takes for them to be effective, and when it’s time to call it a day.
This model of ‘forming, norming, storming, performing, and adjourning’ strongly resonated with participants’ experiences. They mapped the enablers and blockers for each stage of the partnership journey (we’ve summarised these in the table below).
We noticed two main things.
Firstly - and perhaps unsurprisingly - the ‘forming’ and ‘storming’ stages received the most attention in conversations. Getting the initial conditions right for a partnership to thrive is essential and deserves more time than it’s usually given.
The participants also advised: don’t succumb to convenience, instead put the hard work in to find the right people. Be imaginative about how to get funding. Establish the right type of culture for productive conversations. Invest time in fostering an environment for the partnership to flourish.
Secondly, ‘straight talk’ became a recurring and central theme. One of the participants explained: ‘you have to be prepared to have those difficult conversations, address hidden agendas and interests… you have to be prepared to address the elephant in the room’.
Participants advised that in addition to open and frank conversations, a partnership might benefit from mediators who can help those involved to strike a balance between tempering the urge to go fast, and taking quality time to address differences whether these are hierarchical, cultural or something else altogether.
We then asked the room, what role does the government play in all of this?
We tested Policy Lab’s Government Intervention styles as a framework to define specific and concrete ways in which government might play a role in partnerships at different stages of their development. The reaction to this tool was consistently positive, with a key caveat.
They told us that as policymakers, they intend on using the canvas to ask the right questions; but when it comes to partnerships, it’s not a perfect fit.
They agreed that governments do have special levers and ‘styles of intervention’ that they can deploy if part of a partnership, but that the framework we’d chosen implied that the government sits outside of these, rather than being an active member.
They suggested it would be a worthwhile exercise to develop a framework that is more tailored to the unique nature of partnerships. This is definitely something we’re keen to explore further in the future.
One of the most eye-opening moments for participants was when Arne Daneels - a policy advisor to the Flemish government - presented the Green Deals initiative. This is a type of partnership where a voluntary agreement between (private) partners and the Flemish government is made to start a green project together.
It was a refreshing case study from outside the realm of labour markets, the future of work and skills, or lifelong learning. They showed how it’s possible to incentivise companies to form partnerships around environmental projects and deliver on policy objectives, whilst allowing them to retain their autonomy in how the partnership works.
It was also a reminder that inspiration can come from places you wouldn’t usually look, in this case Arne worked in a different department, in a different policy sphere.
Someone pointed out that it took a workshop -organised by someone from outside their government - in order for people in the room to talk to each other for the first time, despite probably crossing paths every day.
Building bridges across government, inspiring each other into action, and innovating, requires policymakers to develop the type of skills and attributes we keep saying that citizens need in order to thrive in the labour market. These ‘21st century skills’ are also essential within government in order to solve our biggest problems, many of which can only be tackled through partnerships.
Partnership journey template: download the template we used at the workshop and map your own partnership journey. What stage are you at? Are you asking yourself the right questions in order to help your partnership flourish?