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  • Writer's picturePaul Clark

Leading cross-sector partnerships: three days with the Government Outcomes Lab

Updated: 23 hours ago

The regular reader of this blog will know by now that I think a lot about partnership working. I believe wholeheartedly that in a world of increasing complexity, the pursuit of positive outcomes requires the collaborative efforts of a wide range of people. We started Stories, in part, to be the glue that binds such efforts.


Recently I had the privilege of being able to step back from the day job and attend the new course on Leading Cross-Sector Partnerships at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. The course is run by the Government Outcomes Lab and I joined a cohort of some 20 others from diverse backgrounds and all corners of the globe.

 Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the time in Oxford, dining in some of the colleges and having long conversations with people grappling with similar challenges to my own, there were some stand-out take-aways for me from the course.


Unlocking the power of inquiry

Central to effective partnership-building is the ability to ask better questions. By challenging ourselves to reframe questions, and asking incisive questions that test assumptions and unearth underlying dynamics, we saw how this can deliver clarity amidst complexity. Whilst we at Stories have become accustomed to the power of starting our conversations with ‘why’ (thanks to Simon Sinek of course), reframing questions can deliver very different outcomes. A famous example of this is the High Line in New York.


Reframing the question surrounding the High Line project played a crucial role in its transformation from a disused elevated railway to a vibrant public park. Initially, the railway was to be demolished and Mayor Guiliani had already signed off on the paperwork to this effect. Initial discussions primarily revolved around the former railway line’s economic potential and how it could be redeveloped to attract businesses and increase property values in the surrounding area.


However, community activists, notably the co-founders of Friends of the High Line, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, recognised the potential of the High Line as more than just an economic asset. They successfully reframed the question to focus on broader social, cultural, and environmental goals. Today we might talk of this being the ‘triple bottom line’. Instead of viewing the High Line solely through just an economic lens, they saw an opportunity to create a unique public space that would benefit the community in multiple ways.


We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” Robert Hammond


By reframing the question from "How can we maximize economic development along the High Line?" to "How can we repurpose the High Line to serve needs of the community?" David, Hammond, and their supporters advocated for the preservation and transformation of the railway into a public park and green space, creating a wider value for New York in the round. Their 2002 Reclaiming the High Line paper didn’t shy away from the economics of the opportunity though, and they spent a long time making that case too. But the shift in perspective allowed them to garner widespread support for their vision, rallying community members, policymakers, and philanthropists behind the project. Interestingly, with hindsight the founders of the movement think they could have done more for the community, but the retention of the High Line alone was an achievement that can’t be overlooked.


Whether exploring stakeholder motivations or uncovering hidden barriers, the skill of asking better questions emerged as something I will be boring my colleagues about for some time to come.


Embracing diversity in pursuit of common goals

One of the most striking aspects of the course were the diverse perspectives brought by participants hailing from various sectors and geographies. People working on road building projects in Nigeria, education in the Philippines, health in Scotland, prisoner reoffending in the UK, neo-natal health services in Afghanistan. Despite our different backgrounds, we shared a common ambition: to forge partnerships that drive meaningful change. For us in the UK this is generally borne of the need to ‘do more with less’ or to try and improve the outcomes of our projects. In other places an outcome-led approach to contracting is seen as a potential way to combat corruption and to facilitate cross-sector working in less mature markets. And thinking back to some of the Covid-era procurement results in the UK for example, perhaps we might benefit from some of that here too. For me, this perspective on outcomes-led partnerships being a mitigant against poor behaviours is an interesting foil to the difficulty of contracting for behaviour.


Formal-Relational contracting

I have written before about the interplay between formal agreements and relational dynamics in the creation of successful partnerships. The course gave us the chance to reflect on this and went on to equip us with strategies for navigating this through formal-relational contracting. Beyond the legalities outlined in formal agreements, we explored the importance of nurturing trust, fostering shared values, and cultivating open communication channels. By integrating the formal and relational dimensions of contracting, we learned how to think more strategically to build resilient partnerships capable of weathering uncertainties and adapting to evolving circumstances.


We also looked at how formal-relational contracts have underpinned some important commercial and social outcomes in the recent past. In the US we were directed to the way that Dell and FedEx used a relational contract to address a major impasse with the way that they had structured a hardware return-and-repair contract. In the UK relational contracts are proven to have secured better road conditions for the residents of Birmingham and also have enabled the Post Office masters to pursue their high profile case that is currently in the public eye (see Amey Birmingham Highways Ltd v Birmingham City Council and Bates v Post Office Ltd (No. 3)). In the Post Office case in particular, the court identified a number of characteristics relevant to an assessment of whether a contract is relational, including, for example, whether the parties’ relationship is long-term, and whether the parties repose trust and confidence in each other in performing the contract.

In the case of the Post Office the court rejected the argument that the duty of good faith that underpins a relational contract requires only that the parties act honestly. The duty includes honesty but, in the court’s view, it goes beyond that, requiring that the parties refrain from conduct which in the relevant context would be regarded as commercially unacceptable by reasonable and honest people.

Bearing in mind my previous blogs on the need to be able to trust your partners, to be told that we might indeed be able to contract for this (if we wish to, and we do!) is something that I am excited to put in to practice at Stories.


Attending this course has very much reshaped my perspective on collaborative leadership. From embracing diversity to honing the art of inquiry and navigating the complexities of formal-relational contracting, the experience will most definitely inform Stories’ approach to partnership-building in the future. I’d like to thank the team at the GO Lab, and their external faculty, for a job very well done and would recommend it to anyone looking to kick-on with their approach to partnership working.


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