Going organic…  Partnering around water. Part 1: The tangibles vs. the intangibles

By Ken Caplan, Director, Partnerships in Practice

Having worked in the partnership space for a long time, my organisation is often asked for the magic formula on how best to engage stakeholders, manage conflicts, ensure commitments are being met …in other words, structure and then measure the effectiveness of a partnership.  We have always been troubled by this approach.  Sure there is clarity on how best to introduce and measure efficiency gains, measure water quality… measure the tangibles.  This is important, but much of what working in partnership is about however revolves around the intangibles.

Partnerships are ultimately about shaping the quality of a conversation that allows different perspectives to be heard and understood, and then debated – leading to new ideas and better ways of resolving issues in response to changing contexts.

Engaging stakeholders, managing conflicts and ensuring commitments are being met are all part of this moving landscape.

When we first started out in the partnership arena back in the late 1990s, we were asked for lessons learned from a series of partnerships operating in the water and sanitation space.  Without hesitation, our first lesson was that context matters.  We were told in no uncertain terms though by one or two senior colleagues that we could do better than this.  Surely there were deeper, more intrinsic lessons that we could share.  These diverse partnerships could learn from each other of course, but some were more advanced than others, some were more confrontational than others, some were very friendly but lacking in ambition, some very ambitious but needing a reality check.

All were shaped by the resources brought to the table, the politics of the moment, the personalities sat around the table, the understandable but hidden conflict embedded in different attitudes to risk, and different reflections on whose risks mattered most.

Our work in supporting each of these partnerships needed to be tailored to the specific circumstances, trying to build sufficient familiarity that allowed partners to be at least marginally comfortable with the unpredictable.  This was obviously challenging when there were legal and regulatory as well as major investment issues at stake, but partnerships are not about having all the answers up front.  Instead, difficult as this is, they appear to be most effective when they evolve organically…

Every 5-7 years, we have revisited the current state of affairs with regard to partnerships in the water sector.  We are doing this again at the moment.  Although there is fatigue and much eye-rolling around the language, partnerships, collaborative working, or whatever we wish to call it these days remains very much in the vanguard.  Organisations need to show how they are working together with others and are still looking for the magic formulas.  Thus, the rhetoric hasn’t changed – partnerships remain the way forward.  But in reality, they rarely deliver what we expect of them.


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