2019 – 2021

Capturing learning from the COVID-19 response and identifying ways to deepen and sustain collaboration between Barnet council and the voluntary, community and faith sector

The Backdrop

Barnet has a rich tapestry of civil society organisations with over 1,000 registered charities and many more voluntary, community and faith groups (VCFS). These are a huge asset to the borough, which Barnet Council has long recognised but hasn’t always found a way to mobilise and partner with effectively to meet community needs. The pandemic changed this; suddenly, it showed what closer partnership-working looked like, and what together could be achieved.  

Barnet Council asked us to help them understand what had enabled this transformation of partnerships, and how the approach could become embedded within the Council’s ways of working. Our previous work in Barnet gave us a good grounding in the local context, and as an outside agency, we could act as ‘neutral brokers’ to reflect all perspectives. 

What we did

Our starting point was to dig into the context and specifics of Barnet’s partnership working. Through interviews and workshops with both council officers and VCFS partners across the sector, we explored their experiences of working together through COVID-19, the conditions that made this possible and the priorities for change. Analysis of the insights gathered in these conversations allowed us to clearly articulate the opportunities they acted upon and to imagine new possibilities.

One highlight was an online workshop with over 40 participants representing organisations from across Barnet. While many were working at home, some joined the meeting from community spaces, cafes and cars as they criss-crossed the borough, which helped to root the conversations in the communities that everyone was there to serve.

The energy, experience and commitment of everyone we spoke with was plain to see, though work was needed to address a hesitancy to more open partnership working, borne from prior unsatisfactory experiences. As ‘outsiders’, we brought a new perspective to help move things forward; we focused on building relationships so that people trusted us to hold space for hard conversations, surfacing the challenges that were holding back the group. 

We developed workable solutions for embedding collaboration into the Council’s work through careful brokerage that respected the different and occasionally conflicting viewpoints across the group. These accounted for both new needs and historical baggage. Crucially, ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders throughout the process allowed us to test and refine our ideas, setting out our reasoning and ensuring that the recommendations in our final report had widespread acceptance. 

The process of our work in the borough itself was a catalyst. It deepened relationships and understanding between different actors, demonstrating that different ways of joining together were possible. 

Impact and Learning

Dealing with the COVID-19 emergency brought welcome additional resources and an extraordinary level of clarity and urgency of purpose. While these could just fade away in a ‘business as usual’ approach, other important enablers of collaboration that had been present—such as more free flowing communication, mutual respect, learning together and adapting practice—can be replicated in any scenario.

An active choice needed to be made to build the practice and infrastructure necessary to make this way of working sustainable. We recommended new approaches to commissioning, funding, capacity building and exercising sectoral voice as a collective. Yet, the mindset the Council adopted towards the sector was equally important as the policy suggestions. 

“As is so often the case, relationships were key to this project”, reflects Jeff Masters, project lead for Collaborate. “It was the strength of the relationships that we built with the client and the community that allowed us to uncover a way forward. And it will be the strength of the relationships the Council fosters with partners in the VCS that will enable it to achieve better outcomes for the people of Barnet. We encouraged them to ‘choose partnership’ at every opportunity, and it was great to see the Council incorporate its commitments to the VCFS sector into the Barnet Plan as a signal of its intent and to allow others to hold it to account.”

We identified key opportunities for the Council to commit to action. Reflecting a commitment to working in collaboration with the VCFS in the Barnet Plan was an important stepping stone to developing a broader partnership approach, allowing the Council to leverage its own actions by encouraging other partners in Barnet to do the same through the Partnership Board. 

Collaborate provided invaluable support to Barnet Council in understanding our organisational culture and how this could be reset to become more collaborative and outward looking. They engaged widely with staff and stakeholders, listening and responding to local context and working collaboratively with us while providing the right amount of challenge. Their findings and ideas were shared throughout the process, and they generated support from those they spoke to. We would not hesitate in recommending them to other councils

John Hooton
Chief Executive, Barnet Council