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Sustaining effective social partnerships


16 June 2008

ISBN 978 1 921412 08 0 print; 978 1 921412 09 7 web


This report reveals that the formation and maintenance of social partnerships depends on five key principles relating to purposes and goals; relations with partners; capacity for partnership work; governance and leadership; and trust and trustworthiness. Using four partnerships as case studies, the report set out to assess how these principles and practices can be used to develop social partnerships strong enough to withstand changing circumstances. The findings suggest that a partnership's capacity for flexibility is enhanced when there is a culture of partnering, committed sponsors, supportive auspicing organisations, responsive partners and government commitment.


About the research

Social partnerships are good tools for addressing issues which are too difficult for any single agency to tackle. Such partnerships - formed when people and agencies come together - are particularly useful in ensuring that a community has access to second chance learning and to skills development that supports local industry.

This report, Sustaining effective social partnerships, builds on an earlier project that identified key principles and practices underpinning the development and maintenance of social partnership. (See S Billett, A Clemans and T Seddon, Forming, developing and sustaining social partnerships. NCVER, Adelaide, 2005.) It used four case studies to see how these principles and practices operate and trialled the self-evaluation tool developed in the first phase of the project.

Key messages

  • Forming and sustaining effective social partnerships depends upon five principles: having shared purposes and goals; having strong and well-defined leadership; establishing trust and trustworthiness; maintaining good relationships between partners; developing the capacity for partnership work; and having inclusive governance practices.
  • The success of transposing these principles into practice is influenced by the size and complexity of the partnerships. If they become unwieldy, then the partnership can crack.
  • By using the self-assessment tool developed out of this research, those involved in a partnership can reflect on the health of the partnership. The tool could also prove useful for evaluation.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER



Executive summary

Understanding social partnerships

Social partnerships are formed by a strategic alliance of partners from government, the public and private sectors, and civil society. These collaborative networks are established to develop innovative solutions to sometimes complex social and economic issues arising in local communities. These solutions should be sensitive to local people, encourage synergies between local agencies, and build practical and user-friendly relationships between people and services. However, the capacity to achieve this is dependent upon the partnership operating successfully, in terms of both governance and delivery of services.

Social partnerships involving the vocational education and training (VET) sector are usually aimed at developing skills for work and providing 'second chance' learning. In addition, they can play an important role in building local capacity to support industry, individuals and communities during times of changing economic and social circumstances.

Aims of project

This research examines the processes of forming, maintaining and sustaining social partnerships. It builds on Phase 1 of this project, which investigated the principles and practices underpinning the effective operation of ten social partnerships involving the VET sector around Australia (See Billett, Clemans & Seddon, Forming, developing and sustaining social partnerships, NCVER, 2005). The findings from Phase 1 identified:

  • different types of social partnerships - enacted, community and negotiated partnerships
  • the central role of partnership work in the development and continuity of social partnerships
  • the principles and practices associated with this work and their phases of development
  • the dimensions of partnership work, for example, building trust, establishing the culture of the partnership, establishing the processes for collaborative action.

Through four case studies, Phase 2 aimed to:

  • verify the importance/applicability of the key principles and practices as identified in Phase 1
  • assess the ways in which the principles and practices are associated with establishing and developing social partnerships robust enough to manage changing circumstances, tasks and goals
  • evaluate the usefulness of these principles and practices as a tool to inform the work of social partnerships.


We examined the way the principles and practices of partnership work developed in Phase 1 were applied in four social partnerships over a 14-month period. Two of these partnerships were in the early stages of development and two were well-developed partnerships focused on maintaining their vitality and relevance over changing circumstances and times.

Three data-collection techniques were used at each site: informal monitoring of partnership development; repeat interviews with up to four key informants; and an assessment of partnership 'health' based on a comparison between informants' views of the ideal principles of partnership work and their perceptions of the actual practices in their own partnership. To accomplish this, informants used a self-evaluation instrument based on the principles developed in the first stage of the project. From these data a profile of each partnership was built up. Critical moments in the partnership were also analysed, along with how these were addressed.

Forming, maintaining and sustaining social partnerships

The case studies demonstrate that forming, maintaining and sustaining social partnerships depends upon effective partnership work. The principles and practices that inform effective partnership work involve developing and maintaining:

  • shared purposes and goals
  • relations with partners
  • capacity for partnership work
  • governance and leadership
  • trust and trustworthiness.

Informants from partnerships in both phases of this project indicated that they found these principles useful as a way of thinking about the dimensions of the work necessary for the success of their social partnerships.

Effective partnership work

The case studies demonstrated that success in transposing these principles into practice is influenced by the size and complexity of the partnership, the character of and enthusiasm for participation, the partnership's capacity - through the strength of its identity and its relationships - to respond to threats, and its leadership and governance. The partnership in one of the case study sites - the Community Cafe - had a relatively straightforward structure, was focused on a single issue and had engendered sustained interest, trust and concerted effort in the local community. Consequently, when the continuity of this partnership was threatened, its size and lack of complexity meant it could respond quickly and effectively to the challenge confronting its viability.

  • In terms of process, governance and service delivery, the day-to-day activities of the partnership towards its specified goals are assisted by timely and pertinent guidance and direction, such that participants also learn during the process. Good governance is facilitated by the development of clear and transparent partnership structures and inclusive partnership cultures. Furthermore, partnership activities need to be sensitive to the broad concerns of stakeholders.

While generally informing practice across social partnerships, the principles and practices of partnership work were found to be particularly significant at different stages of the partnership and in relation to specific decision-making activities. Crises forced two of the four partnerships in this study to take action to prevent their disintegration, prompting participants to reaffirm their goals and purposes, and emphasising the need for effective working relationships. It seems that smaller NCVER 9 and more focused social partnerships show greater adherence to all five principles of partnership work when confronting change and challenges.

Perceptions of partnership health

A participant's perception of the congruence between the ideal principles of partnership work and the actual workings of their own partnership provides a useful indication of its effectiveness. The self-evaluation tool developed during the Phase 1 research was useful here, in that it encouraged participants to reflect on the 'health' of their partnership. While the numbers of respondents were small, the levels of congruency were consistent with the data from the interviews and could be correlated with events (for example, threats) occurring in the partnerships. A more significant difference was noticed between the ideal principles and the actual practices in the two partnerships reported as struggling to form and progress as partnerships, confirming that close alignment between these practices and principles increases the capacity of partnerships to be sustained through changing circumstances and goals.

Sustainability of social partnerships

The sustainability of social partnerships is enhanced where certain conditions are met. These include an established structure and culture of partnering, committed sponsors, a supportive auspicing organisation, responsive partner organisations, and, where appropriate, government policy that provides both structure and flexibility.

Leadership is a critical factor in sustaining social partnerships because it mobilises, focuses and strategically directs partnership work. The case studies confirm that partnership health and sustainability is enhanced when leadership roles are clearly identified and distributed amongst the various participants enacting the partnership.

The organisational capacity of the partnership to build trust, implement inclusive governance and sustain the engagement of partners was a key aspect in the four diverse partnerships. Where there was insufficient organisational capacity, such that trust was underdeveloped or had withered, there were difficulties securing commitment, defining common purposes and sustaining activities, even when there were shared goals and concerns.

Using principles and practices in partnership work

The principles and practices of partnership work identified in Phase 1 of this research have been applied across the four case studies in Phase 2. We suggest that, having demonstrated their usefulness in partnership establishment and maintenance, they can be used as a resource or a framework in the VET sector to:

  • capture and draw attention to the dimensions of partnership work widely recognised as important by participants engaged in VET partnerships. These dimensions, which were identified in Phase 1 of the project (cultural-scoping; connection-building; capacity-building; collective work; and trust-building) can support social partnerships or, by their absence, inhibit their development (Billett, Clemans & Seddon 2005, p.9)
  • provide, using the self-evaluation tool developed from the principles, an indication of the health of a social partnership in VET, based on the degree of consonance between the perceived ideal principles and the actual practices in social partnerships
  • guide participants engaged in VET partnerships by encouraging reflection on the important dimensions of their practice. This will ensure the consolidation of the partnership as a distinct organisational entity, establish it as an effective steering and learning mechanism, and maintain the relationships and build capacity to realise goals and lead to improvements in the way the partnership operates
  • inform leaders and managers of partnerships, and sponsors and users, by focusing attention on the challenges and constraints inherent to partnerships and providing a framework for assessing and trouble-shooting the operations of social partnerships, particularly in relation to process and governance.

Social partnerships in VET

Social partnerships make a significant contribution to VET in Australia. However, this research has found they can be fragile. Ultimately, their sustainability relies upon the recognition that goodwill and individual commitment cannot replace:

  • realistic funding of reasonable duration
  • availability of personnel with appropriate skills to meet skill needs and succession
  • authority delegated through government endorsement
  • a democratic foundation that gives them legitimacy in their communities.


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