Third sector in partnership arrangements: navigating new waters or treading water?

11 Dec 2006

In recent years the notion of ‘partnership’ is being used by both the Commonwealth and State Governments to describe a preferred relationship with the third sector. Governments are increasingly initiating partnerships to deliver social services, assuming that the networks and resources of third sector organisations can be mobilised to address and solve ‘wicked problems’ of complex social concerns.

A partnership style is purported to differ from previous contractual relationships between the third sector and the state. The suggestion is that partnerships can be a ‘tool for change’, offering opportunities for a change in culture, attitudes, perceptions, and for third sector organisations to be involved in decision making processes. There are, though, arguments that problems encountered by the third sector under the contractual model (such as sustainability, access to policy-making processes and maintaining independence and autonomy) still remain – and indeed have been extended.

The literature proposes an on-going debate about whether partnerships between governments and the third sector are rhetoric or reality. On the one hand, inconsistent applications of partnership principles are seen as a source of tension between governments and third sector organisations. That is, partnerships continue to be developed within existing structures, processes and frameworks of power – “new rhetoric poured into old bottles”. On the other hand, it is argued that partnerships between the two sectors are not just empty rhetoric because they do correspond to a rapid realignment of social policy and funding arrangements for human services.

The above debates are explored in this paper through insights gained to date via an ARC Linkage project. The project uses contemporary Australian employment policy as an example of partnership arrangements, given governments’ increasing use of third sector organisations to deliver employment services.

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