The Problem with ‘Partnerships’: Learning from the experience of ‘partnerships’ for ‘urban regeneration’ across the UK

By Chik Collins (University of the West of Scotland)

From the beginning of our seminar series in early 2015, I have been struck by the parallels between our discussions of ‘research partnerships’ and the experience of ‘partnerships’ for ‘urban regeneration’ across the UK. The parallels seemed more striking when we met for the second of our core seminars, on the topic of ‘Designing Research’, at the Action Aid International offices last October. And this was particularly so when we came to reflect on issues of power a bit more effectively than we had perhaps been able to at the first core seminar.

I stress the word ‘parallels’ here. ‘Regeneration Partnerships’ and the ‘Research Partnerships’ we are discussing emerged in different ways, at different times, and for different reasons. They are not ‘the same’, and the trajectories of the latter are not, I believe (and hope), predestined to mirror those of the former. But it is perhaps useful just to explore some of the parallels.

It’s clear for a start that the notion of ‘partnership’ has a very substantial normative force behind it – shaping how people and organisations ‘present’ their work, and their wider contribution, to the world. ‘Partnerships’ are seen to be fundamentally good things, which people and organisations should aspire to initiate and develop. ‘Kudos’ follows.

We can see this when we start to use the term ‘partnerships’ to describe things that would have happened in the past anyway, quite independently of any attempt to initiate and develop an actual ‘partnership’. We also see it in our inclination at times to talk about ‘partnership working’ when the fairly challenging things which would seem to be implied by that phrase (like getting out of ‘silos’, reaching genuinely shared understandings about problems and strategies, meaningful collaborative control, developing enduring relationships beyond the time-span of external funding, and commitment of resources to achieve all of the above), are not necessarily that apparent.

When we feel compelled to use a certain language like this, then one can be sure that the context we inhabit, and which provides meaning and motive to our action, is imbued with power. Behind the appealing semantic of ‘partnership’ lie other purposes and agendas, leading us, subtly or otherwise, to formulate our ‘documentation’, and later perhaps our actual thinking and intentions, along new lines.

Another ‘parallel’ is one already alluded to above. It is that ‘partnerships’ have a tendency to be much more messy and difficult in practice than they seem when they are spoken about as an aspiration. The aspiration is certainly an admirable one: Who could have a problem with the idea of well-intentioned individuals and organisations getting together to work in an open and expansive collaboration to change, not just some serious ‘realities’ in the world, but themselves and each other in the process.

But then there is the reality. In terms of the experience of ‘partnerships’ for ‘urban regeneration’, it was not uncommon for research to find that long-standing and heavily resourced ‘partnerships’ had exhibited hardly anything by way of actual ‘partnership working’ by the time they were wound up. Worse, there were many tales of horror.

Hearing from those who have been involved in academic-NGO ‘research partnerships’, things don’t seem to have been anything like as bad as that, but certainly, the experience has tended to fall short of the (admittedly idealised) aspiration. Interestingly, though, the case studies have all highlighted important aspects of learning as to what less-idealised aspirations might be, and also as to how things might be done differently, in light of experience, to better approach them.

In some cases, that seems to have meant trying to be both a bit more like a ‘partnership’ and a bit less like a ‘partnership’ – planning in time and resources to facilitate a clearer shared understanding amongst participants (more like a ‘partnership’), but also having a clearer sense that at times there needs to be a somewhat more hierarchical conception of leadership and authority as to how things get dealt with and problems get resolved when ‘issues’ emerge (a bit less like a ‘partnership’).

In terms of the ‘framework for analysis’ which we have used to think about research partnerships, these issues are very much about ‘power in partnerships’. The ‘Designing Research’ discussion highlighted the need to think carefully about this aspect of power in the process of research design itself.

In subsequent seminars we will no doubt proceed to talk more about ‘power through partnerships’. In doing so, it might be useful to extend our framework for analysis to speak a bit more explicitly about power in another sense – that is, ‘power behind partnerships’. For the changes which ‘partnerships’ bring about in the world, and in the ‘partners’ themselves, are likely to reflect, not just the internal power dynamics between partners, but also the external power dynamics that bring them together as ‘partners’ aspiring to change the world in the first place.

Here there is a further parallel with those ‘urban regeneration partnerships’. There was a fair bit of academic analysis of these in terms of ‘power in partnerships’, and often the findings were used to explain their repeated failure to achieve the objectives which gave them legitimacy. Those objectives were about aspiring to make life better for communities in places which had been subject to ‘degeneration’ in the preceding decades – through deindustrialisation, unemployment, poverty, deprivation and so on. But, while the internal power dynamics of the partnerships were certainly fascinating and relevant to outcomes, much more important to their poor outcomes was the aspect of ‘power behind partnerships’. It was this which meant that the partnerships were implementing ideas and policies which had in fact played a major role in bringing about the degeneration of the places and communities which were supposed to be ‘regenerated’ by the imposition of yet more of the same policy medicine. No wonder they ‘failed’ – at least against their stated aims. In fact, if they were in some ways ‘disabled’ by their internal power dynamics, maybe that wasn’t a bad thing! Behind the lovely semantic appeal of the language of communities, participation, empowerment, social inclusion, capacity building, social capital, etc., lay quite specific purposes and agendas which meant that what many contributors thought they were doing turned out in practice to be quite different from what they were actually doing.

And this is perhaps the parallel I find myself pondering most as we develop our discussions. The normative force which channels us towards willing, even enthusiastic, engagement with ‘research partnerships’ might find us to be more willing and more sanguine than our wider reflections on power in a world of such staggering injustice might tell us we really ought to be. For power doesn’t often work by countering the aspirations of academics and professionals for a fairer, better and more just world. It works, rather, by harnessing these aspirations, and the language in which they are expressed, and taking them some other place to serve some other purpose.

This is an important element of how the intensifying injustice of recent decades has been enacted – through ‘partnerships’ and various other forms of ‘governance’ which have changed the world, but, perhaps too often, in ways which many of those who have been involved in them would probably not have wanted to see. ‘Impact’, like ‘partnership’, is not necessarily virtuous. And when we (an I mean ‘we’ – which includes me!) find our activity being canalised by normatives like these, we need to avoid the temptation to ‘suspend disbelief’, and think carefully about the agendas and purposes our activity will be likely to serve.