Frequent communication among members is essential to a functional partnership. Generally, regular, informal communication via telephone and email will keep members informed. However, the agreement that forms the partnership should specify regular formal communication that keeps stakeholders informed about the partnership’s activities.
Communication should not be limited to the partnership, but should also include managers, staff and leadership. This fosters accountability, while also supporting the partnership itself so that information about what the partnership is doing is shared among those who may be in a support role rather than a decision-making role.
First and foremost we are stewards of the public trust. Therefore clear confidentiality policies must be in place. The policy should reflect the principle that respecting the privacy of individuals involved in the child welfare system is a critical ethical and legal necessity. Mature partners develop information-sharing agreements, which should include families having informed consent rights to decide what information will be shared and with whom.
In most cases, there should be transparency without information overload. Everyone need not know everything, but successes – evidence that the partnership is making a positive difference – should be made public. Similarly, failures (but not each stumble) should be made known, along with the action steps being taken to prevent re-occurrence. And finally, vocal critics should be heard and acknowledged; sometimes they can become the best allies.
Whenever meetings are convened with external partners, the public child welfare agency should be clear about its openness and willingness to work in concert with its partners; the agency should consider convening advisory councils that invite the participation of partners in the development of policies and seek input on existing policies, protocols and procedures. The agency should convene such a council regularly – or create another forum – in order to review performance and to seek suggestions regarding how to improve performance by collaborating with partners.
It is important that the public child welfare agency share clear information about what it does and does not do (e.g. where it can intervene and where it cannot). Information about each partner which should be shared includes: organizational information such as size, structure, mission, budgets, annual reports, publications and press releases. When there are multiple means for regular communication, myths can be dispelled and misconceptions about mission, goals and objectives of one another’s agencies or entities can be avoided.
Information about past efforts or alternative partnerships and collaborations can be used as reference points, as can information about pitfalls, counter-pressures, political problems or any potential issues that might compromise or test the partnership.
Establish a method to regularly air grievances. Honest and sincere feedback should be sought and provided, as in any other healthy relationship. Unresolved conflict among partners should be addressed through an agreed-upon method. This is also a time to review shared goals.
Vignette: A Healthy Families Program in Fairfax County Virginia provides many good examples of ways to promote information sharing among partners. Rather than dividing up the county and working in parallel, the two public and three nonprofit agencies involved in the Healthy Families program operate as one. For this arrangement to go smoothly, opportunities have been created for partners to meet and share in formation at every level of the agency. At the highest level, quarterly meetings are held for the Executive Committee , which is com posed of the executive directors and key decision makers from the partner agencies. During these meetings Committee members see each other’s budgets, expenditures, case loads and client and shared program outcomes. They discuss trends, gaps in services and staffing needs. Their meetings are facilitated by a program manager. This program manager also separately facilitates meetings among the managers and supervisors of the respective agencies. Although these mid-level staff get in formation from their own directors, the Healthy Families program manager ensures there is time for additional clarification and discussion of details. She also ensures there are opportunities for supervisors and direct service staff to provide feedback during these meetings about successes or difficulties they are having. Minutes from the directors’ and managers/supervisors’ meetings are shared across the partner agencies with staff at all levels. As still one more way of gathering and sharing information, at least annual surveys are conducted with staff and clients and survey results are shared. In formation flow through all levels of the partnership is fluid and transparent.