Social and community work is about building valuable relationships. With all our practice skills in relationships, where we often don’t succeed is in building meaningful relationships with professionals external to our organisation or field, particularly where approaches, agendas and even values appear to differ. In the person-centred approach to partnership it is recognised that a value we can all align with is putting the person we work with at the centre of all we do. Building relationships from this shared value can be very challenging because each professional must be willing to learn from the practices of others and concede that their own approaches could be improved. Simply, meaningful cross-sector relationships are achieved when people connect on a shared value and are transparent about their own shortcomings.
Such vulnerability is not easily achieved. The partnership space must be created as a safe environment. This safety ( as mentioned in the empowering environment) allows practitioners to openly challenge systemic issues, but further to that, learn to challenge their own organisation or personal practices that are symptomatic of these systemic problems.
The safe environment
The partnership needs to become a place where each person has a sense of their own power as well as a sense of respect and connection with all other members. In the Southern Melbourne Services Connect Partnership it was found in evaluation that the type of team environment created “promoted learning, encouraged reflective practice and challenged traditional practice approaches” and a strong sense of team resulted (Hodges, p2).
The important ingredients for a safe environment in an interagency partnership are:
- A shared commitment to listening and contributing without judgement
- An acknowledgement of difference and a curiosity to understand different approaches and perspectives
- Embedded systemic awareness in the process that the way we are funded as a sector has created systemic barriers to quality work (Fook and Askeland, p520-533)
- Critical reflection should be embedded in all partnership meetings
What do team meetings look like?
Partnerships can come in many forms. From a care team to co-ordinate supports for a particular person or family’s situation, to a state-wide community of project leads collaborating to implement a new initiative. The way in which partnership members come together may differ vastly but some form of regular in-person contact will be the best way to build valuable relationships. The kind of spaces used and the size of the group must be considered when trying to achieve safety and critical reflection. Mechanisms must also be in place for members to be able to communicate easily with one another outside of set meetings both in group forums and individually. There is scope for innovative uses of technology but they will have to overcome barriers of differing organisational systems and protocols.
Different meetings will also have different purposes and may include the same or different members depending on the type of partnership:
- Shared training experiences
- Operational meetings
- Reflective practice groups
- Strategic meetings
Learning Together becomes its own learning
In the community services sector training opportunities rarely take advantage of the chance to build cross-sectorial relationships by having workers from different agencies and disciplines undergoing training together. When this does happen it is not always seen as a key objective of the training. The person-centred approach views all members of a group as contributors to the learning and there is much to gain from seeing differing perspectives from different parts of the system around a shared topic. Learning experiences can be created with this objective whether by the partnership facilitator or when choosing training experiences that enhance collaborative relationships.
More about critical reflection
Working collaboratively on a case with workers from other specialty areas requires the group to always have a space to reflect and challenge assumptions. In forms of partnership with more strategic objectives, critical reflection must occur in regards to procedure and objectives.
Reflective practice is a skill that we build to reconcile why we do what we do, with how and what we do. A truly person-centred approach requires continuous critical reflection regarding practice, operational and strategic decisions.
Barriers to creating meaningful relationships
It should be noted that whilst we hope for all participants to contribute and self-reflect, it must be recognised that the choice about how and whether to do so remains an individual one. Some may never feel safe to do so no matter how safe the space created may seem.
The Traumatised Organisation
The safe space must be created with a trauma lens. It must not be forgotten that practitioners and even whole organisations working with the most vulnerable in the community may as a parallel process experience trauma, and the effect organisationally can be as devastating as it could for an individual (ACF, p40). Working in an environment of recurrent stress can make it very challenging for practitioners to engage in decision-making and innovation. To feel part of an integrated, trauma-informed system can reduce risk isolation and despair (ACF, p49). Trauma-informed and person-centred partnerships within the service system are a way for organisations to create system integration regardless of disjointed funding. At the same time it is not a complete solution to pressured organisations and economic realities. Members of a partnership may experience organisational trauma and the ‘safe’ environment must be safe for all considering this, particularly where individuals are returning to more pressured environments. Therefore, in such circumstances, it is not reasonable to expect vulnerable forms of contribution from all.
Community services have a history of needing to account for the work they do and sectors have progressed in producing a valuable evidence base and aligning to academic theory. A ‘side-effect’ of this has been a tendency towards sector-based rhetoric being embedded in our everyday language and processes. Whilst it assists us to prove the value of what we are doing (this module is full of rhetoric!), it can also alienate us from colleagues across the sector who don’t understand the terms we use and take away the power from the people we are supporting when a process is applied to them that they don’t understand.
Name the Jargon: a group exercise to expose the ‘professional’
In one group I stuck a piece of butcher’s paper to the wall and said that throughout our time together we would be noticing and writing down the jargonistic words we used. Initially this exercise was mainly to ensure people from different disciplines wouldn’t be left in the dark because it is assumed we should know a term or acronym.
It had some unintended effects:
- We learnt that often we had many different terms for essentially the same thing, and variations were from program to program not just across different fields. One example of this was the person’s plan had a variety of names, a few being: Individual Treatment Plan (ITP), Client Assessment and Action Plan, Individual Development Plan or Individual Support Plan (ISP).
- Members reflected on the accessibility of their language and attempted to curb their use of jargon (the intention had not been people stop using the words of their field).
- It assisted in creating a culture of vulnerability and openness because it set up a precedent of everyone speaking out to admit they didn’t know something and no one way was assumed to be the ‘right’ way.
- It prompted a group-led discussion about how we use language with the people we support and how we can unknowingly take the power away from people by naming the work we are doing in our professional terms (ie: ‘assessment’).
An important aspect to the relationships within partnerships is the ability to have challenging conversations with each other. Workers feel they can have these when they trust each other, which is why it is imperative to initially build a safe space and relationships that have substance. Challenging conversations should be encouraged and accepted; naming ‘the elephant in the room’ is an acknowledgement of what is happening and the reasons why we all find this to be difficult. It is a courageous move by the person that ‘names the elephant’ although if done in a respectful way it can open a dialogue between people and get to the root of what’s happening. Everyone may feel vulnerable and ill at ease which is why the facilitator or leader of the group is there to ‘hold’ the space, validate and acknowledge the ‘uncomfortableness’. Sometimes the moments where we are most uncomfortable are the moments where we need to persevere and acknowledge the issue to create change in thinking and working.
Naming the’ Elephant’
One example of this occurred in the DHHS led reference groups held for the Victorian Services Connect initiative. The monthly meetings brought together Practice Leads from the eight test sites and DHHS set the agendas and chaired the meetings. Many of the participants talked about experiencing frustration when interesting conversations were cut short due to the set agenda and a task-oriented meeting culture. Participants were always courageous in voicing the things they wished to share, yet it was during one meeting when a participant actually named the problem and said that the meeting form did not suit the needs of its members who were looking for a dynamic space through which to share and learn from each other’s experiences in the test space. The meeting conveners welcomed this feedback and gained input from all in that meeting to inform future meeting spaces and gain specific input from volunteers to plan a forum dedicated to shared learning. The forum that resulted also became a vehicle for the services connect partnerships (who by then knew their program would not be continuing past the test phase) to share learnings and desired legacies with the key people from departmental sections implementing new reforms and from the project evaluators.
“Philosophical differences between sectors that need to work together to integrate care can… impede systemic change” (Wall et al, p14). The person-centred approach to partnership makes the assumption that any partnership created in the community services sector can connect on the concept of putting the person at the centre. Even in the case of having this shared value in theory, it is possible that members of a group have different perspectives on what the philosophy means and how it can be put in to action.
The Southern Melbourne Services Connect Partnership experienced challenges in differing viewpoints when members of the partnership with statutory responsibilities preferred right to information in order to properly assess and mitigate risk. By these members it was deemed acceptable to have conversations with a client’s other workers without the client being aware of the content and frequency of these conversations.
The conflicting philosophical standpoint in the partnership preferred to value each person’s right to privacy and confidentiality. It required a degree of comfort with not knowing everything about the person’s life and favoured this over inadvertently receiving information that the client was not aware that support worker would be party to.
The tension of philosophical difference not only exists between individuals but within the practitioner when faced with ethical dilemmas. A Partnership where differing views are highlighted creates an active learning environment where practitioners and their agencies re-evaluate process and decision-making and reconsider how actions best align with person-centred principles. The focus on critical reflection and safe spaces to challenge each other, assists in members embracing difference and seeking to understand alternative views. Conflict is a valuable part of the process when building team because it exposes these differences of understanding and a curious, gentle handling of conflictual situations can result in increased learning for all.
Partnership members do not need to approach things in the same way all the time. It is possible and often likely that, after critical reflection, different agencies will decide to take different approaches within the partnership context. If so, it is important that the reasons and the implications are very transparent. For example it can be accepted that a partner agency with statutory responsibilities contracted by child protection is more risk averse in its decision-making than others in the partnership. In fact, partnership colleagues will be more likely to work well with a contracted agency when open critical reflection allows a deeper understanding of the agency’s position. This can even result in negotiated inter-agency protocols that work well for all parties.
Competition for funding
One potential barrier to collaborative efforts between agencies is the reality that the service system is a competitive environment where organisations are asked to account for their work and prove their right to funding. This has resulted in a climate where sharing information and learnings does not come naturally between organisations.
To overcome the barriers associated with workers building a team whilst not co-located, the Services Connect coordination team implemented a strategy allowing all key workers to “hot desk” at the other agencies. Workers would at their convenience make use of a free desk space at their partner agencies to work from, usually with the agency key worker orienting them to the space. This was designed to improve relationships and support mutual learning and shared care. The logistical barriers to the innovation were more profound than first imagined due to different agency protocol about visitors on site and about staff working offsite. One manager expressed that the essential barrier was that “we are in competition with each other”.
The partnership acknowledged that although individual agencies or workers chose not to participate, it was valuable for others to trial the ‘hot desk’ and that there was enough trust to ensure safety in the group decision. Throughout the Services Connect pilot individuals shared their experiences of building rapport with other workers and learning from other organisations by utilising the “hot desk.” The shared experiences helped those who had been hesitant at first to trial the initiative. Many of the partner agencies have continued the “hot desk” after the completion of the program.
In hindsight, competition was only an initial barrier as it required organisations changing protocol to allow the initiative. Only value resulted from enacting it. An important factor was that the workers were an essential part of asking for this change and could use it when and how they wished. As senior practitioners, the workers hosting or using a “hot desk” understood the reasons for it and gave reflective feedback about its success.
This barrier is also a driving reason for a partnership to come together and seek to find a person-centred solution to the inefficiencies of the system. It is a barrier that will exist until vast systemic change is realised. The most effective way to manage the repercussions are to be reminded that they are the very reason a person-centred partnership approach is needed. Any problems are pre-existing and the partnership can become a safe space to talk about them and maybe to influence change in regards to competitive behaviour that is no longer useful.