Are partnership boards making change happen? Mencap, on behalf of the Learning Disability Taskforce, commissioned some research to find out.
Learning Disability Partnership Boards were set up in every English local authority in 2001, as part of the Valuing People agenda.
Partnership Boards were meant to involve everyone who could help to improve the lives of people with a learning disability; this included people with a learning disability, family carers, learning disability servicefs and representatives from other service providers such as health, housing, leisure, education and employment.
But several years on, are they making change happen? Mencap, on behalf of the Learning Disability Taskforce, commissioned some research to find out.
The research was undertaken by the University of Nottingham. It involved a postal survey of all Partnership Boards and interviews with Board members in six local authorities. Just over half (51%) sent back a completed survey.
Partnership Boards were intended to fulfil two distinct roles:
• a place where service users and carers are given a voice
• strategic planning bodies.
Balancing these two roles is a difficult and complex task. Those which were most effective at involving people with a learning disability and carers sometimes put so much energy into getting the meetings right that they paid little attention to outcomes. By contrast, other Partnership Boards focused very much on being effective strategic planning bodies, sometimes at the cost of involving service users and carers.
Overall, Partnership Boards are continuing to improve the ways that they involve service users in the process of meetings and many are trying to raise their public profile, with more than half (58%) now having their own website.
A true representation?
However, there are still some notable issues. Although both people with a learning disability and family carers are present at Board meetings, questions remain over how well they are supported to truly represent those who do not attend meetings. The limited involvement of people from black and minority ethnic communities, remains a matter of concern; only 31% of Boards had a champion for minority ethnic service users who regularly attended meetings. Likewise, only 37% include a champion for people with profound and multiple impairments. It is important that these groups and issues are not overlooked, because they relate to the needs of people who are likely to experience the most severe disadvantage.
The involvement of a wider range of stakeholders from statutory and non-statutory agencies remains a problem. Attendance was particularly low by representatives of some generic public services, including Job Centres (14%), leisure services (15%) and adult education (33%), which are not under the control of Partnership Boards, but nevertheless play key roles in determining the opportunities available to many people with a learning disability.
In terms of influence, most Boards are consulted about decisions relating to the direct provision of services for people with a learning disability, in particular day services and housing/residential services.
Decisions about budgets are usually taken without any consultation with Partnership Boards. It is important to note that even where Boards are consulted, there is no guarantee that commissioners in statutory services will act upon recommendations from the Boards.
Despite their strategic role, this research found that Partnership Boards are often poor at setting and assessing measurable targets. Less than one third (30%) of Partnership Boards set annual targets against which they could measure their achievements. This needs to improve if boards want to hold local councils to account over the quality of local services.
When Partnership Boards identified areas where their ambitions had not been achieved, these were most often attributed to failures in partnership approaches. Such failures were linked to a range of factors, including privatisation of services (such as transport) and conflicting central government policies (such as adult education) as well as lack of engagement at local level.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of a Partnership Board undoubtedly rests in large part upon the commitment of its members, especially their willingness to take on tasks over and above attendance at meetings. However, even where members are dedicated and hard-working their ambitions may be thwarted by statutory agencies that refuse to engage in the process of partnership or to recognise the authority of the Board.