Someone challenged me to write about why partnerships that public agencies enter into fail (see footnote).  It was only too easy to work up a long list of reasons but here it is – messy, overlapping and lacking in rigour.  Just like many partnerships.


  • Lack of leadership – no champion at political, board or management committee level who understands (or cares) how partnerships succeed
  • Lack of genuine commitment – “We’ll join so we’re not left out”, “The chair’s had her arm twisted” etc.  See also Going though the motions…
  • Unwillingness to compromise – missing the point completely of working together with other organisations and groups
  • Lack of budget – which reduces any partnership to no more than a talking shop
  • Lack of devolved responsibility/complex decision making structures – the partner that has to refer everything back for a decision; the partnership that cannot delegate within its own structures
  • Lack of dedicated staff – when everyone involved is also doing their day job and no one is wholly associated with the work of the partnership
  • Poor governance – lack of openness, poorly documented discussions and decisions, lack of budgetary control, poor or no ground rules for making decisions, no accountability back to partners
  • Going through the motions in response to some external demand – usually from central government, and usually because a partnership is required to access money (often a modest amount)
  • Central government hasn’t got its act together – different sponsoring departments give different messages to their agencies about the importance of a partnership
  • Different partners speak different languages – their jargon, acronyms and assumed understanding.  Councils talk of “members”, the police of “gold, silver and bronze command”, the NHS of “PAFs”
  • Different cultures – from the emergency services where command and control and uniforms are the norm and everyone’s instincts are to address more senior colleagues as “sir/ma’am” to the raffish informality of some local government professions and charities where everyone is on first name terms
  • Different processes and procedures – different or no plans and planning cycles, different financial rules, different ways of measuring and improving performance
  • One partner too dominant – when some partners say of another “Well, it’s really their partnership isn’t it?”
  • Arrogance – “We know best”, sometimes hidden beneath a veneer of hypocrisy which is however only too visible to other partners
  • Lack of equality in the partnership – partners bring different levels of understanding and scale to the table.  But if some are seen as less than equal (“Just a small charity, only an unelected community rep…”) they’ll behave exactly as they’re treated
  • Unclear objectives – the idea that We ought to do it and It’s a good idea but with no clear sense of Why
  • Timing – not knowing when to start or when to stop.  Either can be done too soon, too late or never
  • The partnership is too big or too small – too big and it’s an all-singing all-dancing conference unable to take decisions, too small and important potential partners are excluded
  • Unrealistic high expectations – not an error it has to be said made by those with experience of partnership working
  • Lack of trust – well with all the other reasons for failure it’s not surprising is it?

The good news is that every reason for failure can be rewritten as a reason for success – leadership, genuine commitment, willingness to compromise and so on.  And even if your partnership is in danger of failing you can tackle the reasons for its lack of success.

Why do you think partnerships fail?

This is Topic 6 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development. Ingrid suggested as a title Collaboration blockers – what stops or slows successful collaboration which is what this is about but with a snappier title