Too many cooks and not enough broth

South Wales Evening Post - 1 October 2013

SOMETHING I regularly hear said within the Swansea Bay business community is that our part of the world 'suffers' from a surplus of partnerships.

It often comes over as more of an irritation than an actual drawback, in the same way that people think we have an abnormal amount of traffic lights. Nonetheless the widely held perception is that time and resources are being squandered on too many groups who spend too much time on too many complex and possibly unrealistic strategies.

The usual follow-on comment is that 'they' (whoever they are) should be out there delivering instead, although no one has yet explained to me just how 'they' are supposed to deliver effectively without first having a strategy.

My initial advice is to tell people to get over it.

The reality is that whatever your outlook and whatever your business, partnership working is an upfront fact of public life in present-day Wales.

You could argue that the trend stems from our dependency on EU related funding. The rules from Brussels require that community regeneration projects have to demonstrate a strong collaborative ethos. Commercial initiatives seeking financial backing have to tick the same boxes.

Having said that, the culture of promoting a partnership approach is very much on the Welsh government's agenda in many other respects. The trickle-down effect on the public sector is only too apparent.

Locally, we have a wealth of partnerships that bring together various bodies that oversee strategies dealing with structural funding programmes, marketing, public health, community safety, economic regeneration and whatnot. Some are statutory, others less formal and broader-based.

I must confess that the current list includes a few that I helped to set up in another life over a decade ago.

Part of me is quite impressed that they're still going without an undue level of life support.

It's true to say though that there are as many people out there who have come away with a negative experience of partnership working as a positive one. Occasionally this is a result of overly high expectations ending up as disillusionment when little progress is made. Sometimes it's because setting up a partnership was a knee-jerk reaction to a problem and wasn't actually needed.

The standard texts in organisational theory state that the most successful partnerships come about when stakeholders can set aside differences when aiming towards a common goal and have confidence in the commitment and leadership shown by each member.

In Swansea, I'd say that it was this kind of mutual support that delivered the Waterfront Museum, the National Pool and even the Liberty Stadium. Each partnership had the right intrinsic qualities but more importantly, each raised the collective game to a level that none of the individual partners could have mustered on their own.

It's worth remembering too that Swansea's success story with partnerships began in failure. Back in 1997, an ambitious decision was made to bid for the city to provide a home for the newly created National Assembly for Wales. Former chief executive Vivienne Sugar however quickly recognised that the council could not do it alone.

As we know, the combined talents she brought together from public and private sectors during that period didn't manage to pull it off despite a magnificent attempt. Yet the contacts that were established plus an ability to freely share skills & expertise soon made the city a formidable force. So much so that partners continued for many years afterwards to help each other bring a substantial level of investment to the area.

Having blown the trumpet in favour of partnership working, I now have to add that it's probably time for some of the existing groups to think about hanging up their spurs.

The advent of the Swansea Bay City Region with its anticipated level of public and commercial inputs suggests some obvious changes but there are also a few others who I know are taking stock.

In these days of shrinking resources it is also beholden of the public sector in the area to question if some of its existing partnerships are effective or even needed.

Sometimes the clues are self-evident. Basically if the partnership involves boring, repetitive meetings attended by people who don't have a high enough pay grade to make an actual decision and the most meaningful thing you've done in the last six months is sit in a circle watching as a facilitator slaps different coloured post-it notes onto various 'strategy' boards, then it really is time to call it a day. A final word of warning. Larger organisations, in both public & private sectors, increasingly have a habit of carrying out consultation exercises and then calling the process a 'partnership'.

They are two very different things and the best way I can make a practical distinction is to return to the subject of the boulevard project.

The business sector may have been consulted on the scheme but I think I'm safe in saying that nothing resembling a partnership approach was involved. If it had then I feel sure that the outcome would have been a lot more practical and a lot less expensive.