The important role of partnerships in achieving Sustainable Development Goals


By Professor Richard Smith, Chair, Centre for Partnering Group

The 17th of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is all about partnerships. Personally, I see this as a bit of a misnomer. Effective partnering is a route to most of the SDGs, and certainly ranks high in delivering on global sustainability ambitions.

The new imperative in a post-COVID world should be to deliver better and more sustainable social outcomes from partnerships that balance community and shareholder interests. However, this demands an equal relationship where all parties contribute to the commissioning and execution of activities and a move away from the traditional client / contractor approach.

When it comes to contractual tendering, it is impossible to imagine all the possible circumstances that will impact upon contractual outcomes in advance. Apart from the recognition of the obvious force majeure factors that arise, there should also be recognition that longer-term relationships are dependent on our ability to be flexible over the life of a contract as issues arise.

The pandemic has been a supreme example of how rules can change. Expediency has forced changes to standard rules and protocols, especially in NHS supply chains and the production of a vaccine. There is now a huge opportunity ahead of us to take a new, relational approach to partnering to drive change in the way the public, private and third sectors work together.

When disparate organisations from across sectors come together, they must be able to add value to each other and play to each other’s strengths. It should be a positive sum gain after all. Despite this, I am not convinced we have properly recognised what the word “partner” really means. It is not just the one telling the other what to do, and the cultural, legal and financial obstacles that often prevail as a result can have a negative impact.

It’s time to reconsider how we partner to achieve social value outcomes. For example, if we write contracts first and appoint tenderers second, we lose the opportunity within the procurement process to forge longer-term sustainable relationships that are not just led by the contract term. Why can’t a prospective supplier have the opportunity to contribute their thinking to the form of the specification? Why can’t the purpose of the contracting opportunity be addressed as much as the bill of quantities?

What about the contribution of the third sector? By that I mean the valuable role they can play in determining the various social determinants of health that are impacted upon by partnerships affecting the economy, environment and social value. Charities and social enterprises are vital in determining an appropriate social value policy outcome for local communities and need to be given a voice.

These are all questions that need to be addressed, and it is clear to me that there is a role for collaborative academic institutions to supply critical and objective environments for the sectors to explore them. Each will have a viewpoint, but a solid evidence base will only be built if they are brought together and reflected upon. It is for this reason that the Centre for Partnering has been formed.

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