I have spent recent years researching various aspects of collaboration in public and social policy and have been struck by a number of observations which seem puzzling. Partnership, collaboration, integration (or whatever we currently call it) seems to continue to be a central aspect of policy reform across a range of different areas (health and social care, education, regeneration, child protection, criminal justice…) regardless of the fact that we have little evidence that these ways of working improve outcomes for service users. Collaboration has long been seen as a kind of public good that is beyond criticism and individuals, institutions and organisations still continue to engage in collaborative activities despite often being bruised from previous attempts. What is it then that is so compelling about collaboration?

In an attempt to get to the bottom of this mystery I started to think about the nature of performance. Collaboration is often predicated on the notion that it should improve performance; yet what isn’t always clear is what types of performance it should improve. Generally it is supposed that collaboration will make things quicker, safer, more innovative and a number of other rather abstracted and optimistic aims but with little specificity of what or how or why. Yet we also accept that collaboration changes working practices, organisational structures, roles, patterns of communication, rules of engagement etc, meaning that it has a wide range of impacts beyond these broad types of aims across a number of different domains.

Therefore in thinking about the performance of partnerships we need to go beyond traditional measures of organisational performance such as efficiency and effectiveness and also delve into issues of identity, legitimacy and prevailing norms and rules. The sorts of measures which have traditionally been used to evaluate the performance(s) of partnership seemed to be incapable of capturing the complexity and the dynamism of a number of the collaborative initiatives that I had researched. Nor did any of them manage to explain the enduring appeal of collaboration in its broadest sense.

At this point I came across the work of an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (USA) called Jon McKenzie. Jon has broad research interests encompassing performance theory, new media, and civil disobedience. He also heads a major initiative in digital humanities involving media studies, studio-based practices, digital learning, and quantitative humanities research. In 2001 Jon wrote a book called Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance and this really resonated with me in thinking about performance and partnerships.

Jon argues that in addition to more traditional measures of performance, cultural performance (efficacy) has emerged as an important force within contemporary society. Cultural performance incorporates a whole field of human activity; in all cases a performance act, interactional in nature and involving symbolic forms and live bodies, provides a way to constitute meaning and affirm individual and cultural values. McKenzie argues that a focus on cultural performance allows us to go beyond rationalist models of policy analysis, to consider policies as more than instruments for bringing about particular ends, but rather to explore their social and cultural impacts. This is particularly important when applied to the field of public policy where policies are made in relation to some sort of notion of the “public good”.

With this in mind, Helen Sullivan and myself decided to put together a seminar and invite Jon McKenzie to address the assorted collection of academics who had gathered together at the Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham. We invited Jon to set out his thesis about cultural performance and then followed up Jon’s paper with our own attempt to apply these notions to collaboration in health and social care. McKenzie defines performance as the ‘embodied enactment of cultural forces’. As such it offers a new way of examining the enactment of policy and identifying the “additional value” of particular policy terms. This can tell us much about why policies do – or do not – work and how these might be developed more effectively so that they influence practice. Not only does this provide value in terms of a new theoretical perspective on policy analysis but there are also practical implications which may be transferred across a range of different policy domains.

This certainly seemed to be borne out by the experience of the participants who provided a number of fascinating contributions and insights during the course of the day. Some of the conversations focused on the operationalisation of the notion of performance. So, for example, if we understand performance in a wider sense then is everything a performance? Is there anything outside of performance? Should we only look at what is being performed or should we look at what isn’t being performed? The issue of emotion and the affective realm was also a core component of conversations and the how emotions interplay with performance in policy enactment was of interest to a number of contributors. Although most present agreed that a different type of performance that goes beyond the traditional efficiency and effectiveness was a helpful analysis there was less agreement over whether this “additionality” was efficacy as outlined in McKenzie’s work. Many of the discussions centred around how we might define what these other types of performance are, whether this is one type of performance and whether it is appropriate to intervene in these types of performance.

Although we didn’t find any definitive answers to the puzzles set out above we did seem to get closer to the issues during the day and this type of theoretical framework seemed to have resonance with others. So much so that we hope to organise another event building on the success of this first meeting, a second seminar will be held at DMU in early 2012, if you are interested in the seminar please get in touch with me (h.e.dickinson@bham.ac.uk) or Catherine Durose (cdurose@dmu.ac.uk).

Helen Dickinson, Lecturer at the Health Services Management Centre at the University of Birmingham.

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