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Partnership and governance

Main findings

The timetable for the commissioning of delivery organisations limited the extent to which prospective providers could engage with communities and undertake co-design with residents and potential community partners prior to contract commencement.

Local authorities had an important role in the commissioning process and helping to establish local partnerships.

During commissioning, the WMCA and local authorities took calculated risks to include smaller local providers with alternative approaches, and test innovative ways of engaging people furthest from the labour market.

Connecting Communities tested promising new types of partnership, including linking an experienced active labour market programmes provider with a community interest company (CIC) with strong roots in a local area.

Partnerships were not static and required continuous investment by lead partners.

When new providers took over in three lots in Year 2, they found it difficult and time consuming to establish new partnerships

The Covid-19 pandemic tested the resilience of partnership working. Providers had co- located activities and interventions with local partners. This approach not only facilitated community stakeholders’ buy-in, but it also allowed lots to alleviate financial and material constraints through resource-sharing. This capacity was reduced during the pandemic.

Commissioning and contract management

WMCA designed the programme for the West Midlands in response to the piloting of the devolution of DWP funds in 2017. Significant resource was required and deployed in a very short timescale during the commissioning to communicate the authority’s intention to partners and potential providers that it wished to do something innovative. Seventy-four organisations attended a market warming event in January 2018, including further education colleges, training providers, and human resources (HR) specialists, as well as specialist providers of active labour market services operating at the regional and national level as potential contractors. New potential providers were actively welcomed where they could demonstrate transferable expertise from working with the target groups. In total, 56 proposals were received from 31 organisations, with 15 organisations applying for multiple lots. Two-thirds (20) of these organisations had strong regional connections in that either they originated or were headquartered in the region or had strong local connections (eg. housing associations with premises in the areas).

Reflecting the localised delivery of services to meet the needs of specific communities, local authorities were involved in the commissioning process. This involvement included but was not limited to: market warming sessions and raising awareness among potential providers, including new entrants and community-based groups; providing information to potential bidders; and scoring proposals.

There were trade-offs between having smaller coherent geographies with concentrated needs and place identity – which were conducive to delivering a saturation model – and economies of scale that potential bidders considered commercially viable. One concern raised during the commissioning stage was the funding for delivery. The lots varied in size because they focused on different sized geographic communities, which resulted in distinct contract values. The smallest lots presented most concerns about financial viability and could only fund one or two employment coaches.

The commissioning process and payment model allowed WMCA to take calculated risks. They provided WMCA with the leeway to include smaller local providers with alternative approaches, which lent themselves to delivering locally adapted solutions and innovative measures to engage people furthest from the labour market. For instance, one lot was led by a sports club, which was a new entrant to employment programmes but had extensive experience working with the local community through outreach activities.

The localised format of Connecting Communities raised expectations of co- designed approaches with community organisations. However, the commissioning timetable could not realistically accommodate this approach. The commissioning timescale could have been longer to facilitate the consultation of communities about their needs and how these might be best met, as well as to involve other organisations. Several stakeholders and providers felt that the short timescale to move from commissioning to delivery limited the opportunity for co-design which would have contributed to future sustainability. One local authority would have preferred a ‘Whole Place’ approach if time had allowed covering housing and small business support.

In spring/summer 2019, three original providers withdrew from their contracts, and the lots were reissued. With new providers under contract by autumn 2019, the programme had a period of relatively settled implementation. However, in March 2020, delivery was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions applied by the UK government and these new providers had less mature partnerships at this stage.

In response to the pandemic, WMCA adapted the payment model by paying providers an amount based on the average claim size for the period spanning November 2019 to January 2021. However, if monthly activity and the resulting claim was higher than this amount, the provider was paid on this basis instead. This change applied from April 2020 until the end of July 2020. Some organisations were paid the baseline amount throughout, whereas other providers were paid based on a combination of the two approaches. Providers reported this flexibility helped in keeping them afloat, meant they did not have to furlough staff, and could maintain a service to participants.

Partnership working

In Year 1, local authorities were a key partner for some providers in terms of practical support, information, and brokering access to other partners and participants. However, the degree of support that local authorities could provide varied depending on other existing initiatives and programmes in the locality. In addition, since local authorities did not have statutory duty, other priorities had a greater call on limited resources. Examples of support included providing venues, publicity, brokering meetings with potential partners, creating networking opportunities, and using available information on potential participants to help other providers contact potential participants. Some providers reported that this type of support was not available in their area, whereas others reported positively on the support and advice they received from the local authority responsible for their lot, indicating variability.

Connecting Communities supported testing new and promising types of partnership, including linking an experienced provider of active labour market programmes managing several employment initiatives with a Community Interest Company (CIC) with strong roots in their area. This CIC brought good local knowledge of the area, of the needs and barriers facing residents, and of community assets, including potential organisations and groups to partner with. It was also responsible for recruiting and supporting participants. Complementarily, the experienced provider supported the CIC with administrative support, monitoring, knowledge, and support with engaging employers.

Partnerships were not static and required continuous investment by lead partners (Box 3.1). During the second and third years, providers continued to develop their networks of partners to support implementation. Some providers joined local partnership structures, attending regular meetings, and others sought to create these where they did not exist before. Existing potential local partners were more likely to engage when they perceived the lead partner was orientated towards community development.

Continuous investment in partnership development
  • During the programme, all lead partners continued to identify and engage new partners and develop collaborations with organisations that provided complementary services. This was necessary because partnerships evolved where funding for partners was project-based or time- limited. The configuration of local partnerships depended on the lead provider’s skills, expertise, and resources, including other contracts they held. Providers that did not hold contracts related to the Adult Education Budget (AEB), for example, linked up with other organisations that did.
  • The arrival of new organisations in a lot created opportunities to partner, which in turn allowed for wider support for participants. One new project that emerged from these partnerships provided a two-way source of referrals for residents in financial distress. For example, individuals who were not in the position to explore employment opportunities due to financial hardship were referred to Connecting Communities when they felt ready and had a plan in place to manage their money. Reciprocally, the lead provider referred participants for support to develop money management skills, which would in turn facilitate their transition into employment.

Lead providers whose experience was seen as being predominantly related to welfare-to- work were initially considered by some local community-based partners as too business- like in approach and overly focused on job outcomes. These perceptions changed with the adoption of an overt holistic approach to working with individuals – central to Connecting Communities – which contributed to gaining the trust of community organisations.

Conscious effort to build and strengthen relationships with existing and new stakeholders included, for example: having a presence at food banks, hosting job clubs, coffee mornings, and jointly organising community events and activities. These activities served as avenues for networking, which helped generate referrals and facilitated the flow of information from providers to jobseekers.

Early in the programme, some providers reported limited engagement with their local Jobcentre and few referrals because lots: (a) were in peripheral urban areas, and Jobcentre offices are mostly located in town centres; (b) covered a wider geography; and (c) did have not have resource to identify eligible individuals with a connection to the area. Because of the tightly defined geography, having a presence in Jobcentre offices was not a viable option since it might have the unintended consequence of raising expectations, which could not be met for individuals who lacked a connection with a specific ward.

There were examples of unintended consequences for partnership working where the delivery partner had targets for other programmes. This could lead to customer referrals to these programmes being prioritised, instead of exploring alternative provision within the partnership. There were examples of increasing one-way referral traffic to the lead partner, and a lack of reciprocity, with few referrals for participants outside of the lead providers’ own provision.

Factors that affected trust required for effective partnerships included:

  • Reconfiguration of partnerships in Year 2 across three lots, because of new lead partners taking over and needing to rebuild trust. New lead partners found it difficult to step into the partnership arrangements of previous contractors and had to restart the process of building trust and developing new collaborations. The one exception was where the new lead partner was part of the original collaboration and had pre-existing strong local connections.
  • Improved stability and continuity in staffing during Year 2. This enabled areas previously experimenting with staffing models, or that had staff turnover earlier in the contract, to increase their community visibility.

  • Working with local people held in high regard, such as faith leaders or councillors who helped create linkages and spaces for partners to come together, particularly (but not exclusively) where the lead partner was new to the area.

  • Some lots were successful in developing partnerships with local employers to create opportunities (eg. Binley and Willenhall, Camp Hill, Chelmsley Wood). These opportunities included training offers to prepare individuals to work in specific sectors, which were made possible through partnerships with training providers.


Many important relationships with local groups were established over the first two years. In those lots that kept the same provider, a good network of partners had been built up, including: leisure centres; community centres; libraries; churches; food banks; youth clubs; health centres and GP surgeries; colleges; housing associations; and other organisations delivering services to the immediate communities. It must also be noted that partnerships also raised providers’ awareness of employment opportunities in the local area – for example, through employers alerting providers to job vacancies as soon as they became available.



Connecting Communities was underpinned by comprehensive governance arrangements at different levels. At national level, responsible officials from DWP visited sites during the programme to develop a deeper understanding of the projects. Governance arrangements at the regional level included the programme being signed off by WMCA Board and reporting to the Employment and Skills Board that met twice a year. At local level, the programme manager organised monthly performance reviews with project managers, although these did not happen with the same frequency during a change of project manager. These meetings were also attended by the relevant local authority representative – though the level of engagement varied between authorities – and this partly depended on the commitments of the officials concerned.

The governance arrangements and supporting reporting structures put in place by WMCA reflected the need to support and capture learning from the programme. Providers valued quarterly round table meetings to provide an opportunity for networking, sharing learning, and peer support, as well as report on programme performance. In addition to this, there were workshops and forums organised by WMCA. Forums provided advisors an opportunity to discuss strategies and best practices. There were also compliance forums where compliance officers met with WMCA compliance officers. These meetings created a form of peer governance amongst providers. However, it must be noted that, as discussed later, these governance and reporting processes became less regular for a period.

In addition to internal governance arrangements, providers developed innovative approaches to involving community partners in project governance. Providers referred to both internal and community facing governance arrangements for their projects. Internal governance arrangements varied by provider, but generally aligned with each provider’s organisational structure. Community-facing governance arrangements included community connector groups, steering groups, and membership of community forums that brought together different groups within an area. For example, one provider used community connector groups, which included members of the community as a critical friend. They described this arrangement:

‘[Community connector groups] are basically our “critical friend” that are looking at the provision we’re providing, what’s working well, what isn’t working well, the feedback on the streets about it, so we’ve really used that as a springboard, a sounding board, to make sure that we’re getting the delivery right.’

Other arrangements included setting up a Community Steering Group, which included residents, representatives from local churches, and schools. An alternative approach adopted by another provider was a focus group with residents to take on board their ideas and to get feedback. 

Effect of the pandemic: partnership and governance

The pandemic affected partnership and governance mechanisms. The final set of consultations with providers identified the following impacts of the pandemic on governance and partnership working:

  • Reduced opportunity for collaboration and sharing lessons between lot providers as the WMCA team were unable to host roundtables, and online meetings tended to focus on specific issues.
  • Providers were unable to co-locate activities with partners. Shared facilities such as libraries or community centres were closed or had restricted access to meet social distancing requirements. These changes removed the providers’ ability to have a joint presence at in-person events, which had been important sources of cross-referral and opportunities for staff to engage residents. Partners with their own premises in neighbourhoods were better positioned to restart in-person support once restrictions were eased because they managed risk assessment processes and measures; co- locating services could be deprioritised for access by partners.

Devolution of the AEB created new opportunities to work with local authorities. For example, in one lot, the local authority worked with the local AEB contract-holder, who provided participants with laptops and data, to enable access to support and training at the height of the pandemic. In some cases where the AEB was not devolved, the opportunity for collaboration in this respect was more limited.

Some lots reported that partnership working continued to function well during the pandemic since the lead partner managed to stay in contact with other partners and maintained a close relationship with key individuals. However, concerns around health and safety prevented the re-establishment of some activities, such as a job club within a local community centre.