Friday March 17, 2023

A recipe for effective partnerships

  • A recipe for effective partnerships image

Professor Janine O’Flynn from ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and David Pullen from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) talk us through the key ingredients for great partnerships on our recent Work with Purpose episode.  

With the stated goal of putting people and business at the centre of policy and services, the public service has renewed its commitment to partnerships with ‘people, communities and businesses, the not-for-profit sector and universities, states, territories and others’.

APS reform is underway and as the government is trying to bring about change, it will need effective partnerships that see a considerable time investment, a strong trust base and common purpose as well as a willingness to cede turf, our Work with Purpose panellists say.

Common purpose

Aligning motivations and incentive structures is a crucial first step that all parties need to take in the early stages of forming a new partnership.

“In the public sector, you’re responding to political cues or ambitions of ministers, and that’s quite different from operating in the private sector where you’ll be delivering to a board or to shareholders. You’ll have a different set of expectations where you can line up those incentive structures towards some common purpose,” Professor Janine O’Flynn, director of the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy says.

“You’ve got to have a common purpose. And that’s never going to be fully aligned, but there needs to be some commonality in there that’s driving you together,” David Pullen, assistant secretary at PM&C says.

Janine says that by establishing ‘shared turf’ in partnerships will yield the best results.

“The idea is you don’t have yours and you let me onto it, but in fact that we share this turf together in pursuit of some common purpose,” she says.

Trust, humility, vulnerability

Beyond establishing a common purpose, partners also need to trust each other. To build this connection, our panellists say that all parties need to be willing to be vulnerable and humble, and that they should consider ‘gift-giving’.

“I don’t mean we are wrapping up presents and giving them to each other, but we exchange things that are of value to each other and that allows us to build trust over time,” Janine recommends.

“By being vulnerable, you’re also open about what you don’t know and what you’re maybe not good at, and you’re also open as things change,” David says.

“Being able to say, “We don’t have the answer.” That’s the ultimate sort of expression of humble government,” Janine adds.

From the outset, being choosy about who you enter into a partnership with will not only save time, but also yield better results.

“For example, with the Sydney Energy Forum, we partnered with the Business Council of Australia and the International Energy Agency which have long-term relationships with the Australian government. They’re trusted, reputable organisations,” he says.

Clarity of roles and diversity of perspectives

Next, partners need to establish clear roles, put things in writing to formalise the agreement, and talk openly about any changes.

“Some of that can be put together in a terms of reference. Often through the journey of the partnership, the partnership also evolves, and things change – communication is really important,” David says.
Partnerships benefit from the variety of skills and perspectives that all parties bring to the table – particularly when it comes to tackling complex problems such as a global pandemic.

“What diversity does, is it allows your partners to see the problem from another angle and allows you to identify a lot more options and their costs and benefits. It helps you pick up blind spots, but also allows you to develop a wider solution set. So, the way I think about it is it actually scales your upside, and it manages your downside risk,” David says.

More and better partnerships

For the future, our panellists are hoping for more partnerships that can empower governments and organisations more broadly to tackle some of the wicked issues they’re facing.

Throughout this journey, it’ll take practice, experimentation, and determination, as successful partnerships don’t grow overnight, they say.

“There’s a sense in this post-COVID world emerging, that humility can be a good friend to government. There’s a sense that we will have to adapt, we won’t always have the answer, and that working in a partnership model can help us to get at least some of the best possible responses,” Janine says.

“We need more experimentation and learning. It’s about the public service building its muscle and building APS capability in terms of how we do it,” David adds.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time and trying to launch big collaborative endeavours and partnerships. And we keep coming back to some of the same questions. This is hard work. This is not waking up tomorrow and we’ve got a partnership. This is iterative work over a long period of time,” Janine concludes.


  • David Pullen image
    David Pullen

    Assistant Secretary
    Cabinet Resilience and Crisis Management Division
    Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

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