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How to approach power dynamics in partnership working

By Deborah Fenney, Fellow, The King’s Fund
11 December 2023

What does cake have to do with power? And why is this important for ICS leaders? Settle down with a cuppa (and maybe a slice!) to read about this often overlooked topic discussed in The King’s Fund’s latest piece of work on transforming power relationships in partnership working.

Here at The King’s Fund, we’ve been working with The National Lottery Community Fund since 2020, in five areas of England to develop partnerships between local statutory and voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations that work to improve the health and wellbeing of local communities. Addressing power imbalances has been a recurring theme of this work.

The VCSE sector plays a vital role in supporting local communities. Recognition of their contribution to wider system health and care aims is now enshrined in ICS implementation guidance – and yet many barriers remain, preventing effective partnership working between the two. A key factor at play in this is a difference in power dynamics. Power in this context is about what VCSE organisations and ICSs need from each other, and the balance of those needs. It might show up in many different places, for example professional hierarchies, financial arrangements and language. The important part is moving away from a finite notion of ‘power over’ – as one of our partnerships’ leads put it, ‘power is not cake’; it is not a simple case of sharing a slice with someone else. Instead, it’s helpful to think about a more expansive idea of ‘power with’ – what can be achieved through collective action.

All relationships have power dynamics, so it’s important to understand what these are, their complexity and variety, to understand where imbalances lie. But this isn’t always easy. Lots of things can get in the way: the assumptions people make about each other based on their role or personal characteristics, the different language people use in different sectors, how finances are managed and the flow of funding and the pressure to deliver that means time for thinking about broader issues like this can get deprioritised.

Power dynamics between statutory and voluntary sector colleagues can, in turn, be mirrored between partnerships and their local communities, reflecting these struggles across the health and care sector. Our partnerships have been working to address these and other issues to learn about power, and how it can be rebalanced in order to improve local relationships, sharing this learning along the way.

Building relationships that go beyond professional roles is a key factor. Understanding more about what motivates people reduces assumptions that might otherwise be present. This might be through something as simple as making time for people to ‘check in’ with each other at meetings and understand a little more about each other’s lives beyond the meeting.

Early in our partnerships’ work, people often made assumptions about others’ skills and priorities. However, as they got to know one another, started to understand different roles and constraints, and built relationships beyond their roles, we saw how they could consciously make use of their pooled resources to better address their partnerships’ aims.

For example, while a voluntary sector leader might see a statutory colleague as more powerful because of their proximity to funding, that statutory colleague may themselves be constrained through power imbalances experienced in relation to their own organisation. Understanding more clearly the constraints and levers they have means both can work together more effectively.

Some of our partnerships were also noticing how language could reinforce power imbalances between members from different organisations, as well as between the partnership and the communities it was supporting. They were attempting to alter the language they used to be more inclusive – but were also learning that it wasn’t as simple as just changing their words. Making sure everyone – including statutory professionals – understood the changes and why they were required was also important.

Money is another key factor when it comes to power imbalances, particularly where voluntary sector organisations are dependent on statutory organisations for their own funding.  When attempting to change funding and commissioning relationships, it is important to pay attention to how power dynamics are affected, so that existing imbalances are not reinforced.

In one example of devolving funding and commissioning from statutory to voluntary sector organisations, it was not simply the practical financial arrangements that needed to change. The partnership is also supporting its voluntary organisations to take up this new role and the accountabilities it involves, establishing a single decision-making body to promote and develop more trusting relationships when it comes to finances.

Getting to know each other and making a human connection is foundational to addressing the power imbalances described here. This sounds simple, but is easily overlooked when working under pressure. Where our partnerships spent time together reflecting on their work, this helped to understand the complexity, identify different power imbalances and how they might be addressed.

For some senior leaders, those in traditionally powerful positions, this might seem unsettling. Often these kinds of conversations talk about ‘giving up’ power – but what might actually be given up is the comfort of feeling in control as others gain a stronger voice.

Regardless, it’s important to keep learning and paying attention to the power dynamics in your partnerships. Our publication on transforming power relationships in partnership working offers some reflective questions to support you in this work.

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