Evaluation Blog #5: Making partnership work (and can we really take the benefits for granted?)

It is often taken for granted that partnership is essential for the delivery of programmes to tackle worklessness. Partnership is seen to offer wide-ranging support for clients with multiple needs as well as the possibility of permanently influencing the way mainstream partners work. It seems self-evident that no single organisation can do this alone.

Yet the evidence base shows that it is tricky to do partnership well and effectiveness varies by sector. A review of evidence from past programmes undertaken by CRESR for the Talent Match Programme last year(http://www.shu.ac.uk/research/cresr/sites/shu.ac.uk/files/tm-evidence-review-partnerships.pdf) showed that partnership with public agencies such as Jobcentre Plus is not necessarily straightforward. They do not always provide the anticipated support and referrals or, where they do, sometimes refer clients mandatorily onto voluntary employment programmes. This does not work well if clients feel they are being forced to participate. Effective partnership with Jobcentre Plus depends on clear communication of aims, ethos and agreed referral terms.

The voluntary and community sector is a core part of Talent Match partnerships. Evidence from other programmes cited in the review shows that organisations with local roots and established relationships with target groups make them natural partners. However, smaller organisations can be ‘squeezed out’ if faced with hurdles such as complex and lengthy bidding processes or ‘end-loaded’ payment structures. One clear implication is that smaller, niche organisations may need capacity-building support to become partners in Talent Match.

Involving the private sector is critical for Talent Match to provide clients with opportunities among local employers. Previous evidence shows employer engagement initiatives have had mixed levels of success. Employers are not so keen to get involved if they have not had a say in the design of programmes, are unclear about objectives or do not feel like their needs are understood. However, they can prove willing partners where projects undertake early outreach work using specialist employer engagement staff, particularly if working through established employer networks. Past evidence also shows it is better to engage well with a small number of employers well than take a wider less targeted approach.

All this only matters, of course, if partnership actually makes a difference. There is little evidence to show it does but this may reflect the difficulty in evidencing this rather than a lack of positive change per se. Looking at one exception, the evaluation of the New for Deal for Communities (NDC) regeneration programme found that partnerships involving more agencies experienced better neighbourhood outcomes.

The exception of NDC suggests partnership is essential to making Talent Match work. Partnerships are already well under way and some of this may be old news. But it is likely that some of the lessons from the past will still have value in forging new links. Here, good practice around developing shared objectives, creating partnership structures and building relationships is likely to resonate. Plus Talent Match can also leave its own legacy by offering up further insights for future programmes. The benefits of partnership should never be taken for granted. But this only makes it all the more important to continually reflect on what makes partnerships tick and how they can be strengthened to better support young people into work.

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