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Partnerships and the People's Network

By Guy Daines, Library Association, on behalf of EARL, the Library Association and UKOLN

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup
Series Editor: Sarah Ormes, UKOLN

The general context

Partnership has a key part to play in the governments Modernising Government agenda [1] and is a product of the much hyped joined-up thinking. It recognises that the modern citizen often has to approach a bewildering number of agencies simply to deal with the challenges of everyday life - a death in the family, illness, or finding a job for instance. Therefore the three aims of Modernising Government are:

  • Ensuring that policy making is more joined up and strategic
  • Making sure that public service users, not providers, are the focus, by matching services more closely to peoples lives
  • Delivering public services that are high quality and efficient. 

This is also reflected in Best Value within local government [2]. Each of the four Cs (Challenge, Consult, Compare, Compete) opens up the possibility of a partnership approach. Challenge (Is the service necessary and, if it is, could it be delivered more effectively by other means?) and Compete (what provider or set of providers will offer a quality service providing best value?) are most radical in this respect.

Already local authorities are expected to work in partnership with other agencies and community groups and to act predominantly as community leaders rather than service providers. This is but one of many similar quotes from government:

The days of the all-purpose authority that planned and delivered everything are gone. They are finished. It is in partnership with others - public agencies, private companies, community groups and voluntary organisations - that local governments future lies [3].

The public library context

There are already examples of partnership working within the public library world. Many authorities manage prison libraries based on a partnership framework between local authorities, the Home Office and the Prison Service. There are often long-established partnerships with the Womens Royal Voluntary Service in delivering services to the housebound and many authorities subscribe to national partnerships such as Launchpad and the Reading Partnership and EARL itself [4]. There are also examples of Information Communication Technologies (ICT) or networking partnerships, some of which are highlighted in this paper. Many of these were stimulated by recent DCMS/Wolfson awards which encouraged partnership working and private sector investment in ICT projects. 

A further factor is that most funding sources for the Peoples Network [5] have social inclusion as a key objective for projects. This too was a strong element in the DCMS/Wolfson awards. It features even more strongly in the Capital Modernisation Fund for ICT Learning Centres [6], the associated Community Access to Lifelong Learning (CALL) programme of the New Opportunities Fund [7] and is clearly relevant to the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) and the Regional and Social funds of the European Union [8]. In most cases the active involvement of the disadvantaged groups concerned, or of the appropriate groups within the deprived neighbourhoods, will be necessary for a convincing case to be made to the relevant funding body.

The ICT context 

Almost all public library services in the UK are directly provided by the local authority. This is no longer the case with ICT services in many councils. The requirement, under the previous compulsory competitive tendering regime - that a certain percentage of ICT work should be put out to tender - plus difficulties in recruiting ICT specialists anyway, has meant that the private sector now manages a sizeable chunk of council ICT services, including network development services. Until recently many library services had been relatively independent of central IT units, especially as most library management systems were independent turnkey systems.

Partnerships in Learning Centre Development in Norfolk and Norwich

Objective: To create in a landmark building the hub of a developing network in Norfolk and beyond for the dissemination of knowledge, the promotion of lifelong learning and a cultural and recreational amenity for the whole community.

Partners: University, FE colleges, Library & Information Service (Norfolk CC), Adult Education Service, Careers Service, TEC, District Councils.

Governance: The Lifelong Learning Strategic Partnership provides the policy framework for the development of 23 local learning centres in Norfolk. The Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Company (Millco) is responsible for the strategic plan to deliver this vision. The central structure is also responsible for ensuring the political ownership of the project among all institutional members and for the setting of standards. At the micro-level Local Information and Learning Centre Consortia are responsible for the local management and operation of the individual learning centres.

Funding: The Millennium Library at Norwich is a millennium project with Lottery funding from the Millennium Commission of 30 million plus 30 million in matching funding (much in the form of assets) from Norfolk CC and Norwich City. This large resource base has provided opportunities to attract other funding to develop the county-wide learning network. The partnership structure also forms a firm basis on which to mount future bids.

Outcomes (so far): Twelve local learning centres (of which three are Learndirect) have already been opened, one in a public library. A further two learning centres are close to completion, one in a public library. The Learning Centre at the E-Commerce Centre in Norwich is a Learndirect Development Centre (University for Industry) and a first-stage bid to become a Learndirect (UfI) hub has been accepted. The Millennium Library in Norwich is due to open by August 2001.

However, the large investment required to deliver the Peoples Network, the increasing interoperability between different systems and the heavy emphasis on ICT solutions to service delivery problems outlined in Modernising Government, means that public library networks will be seen increasingly as an integral part of a councils corporate ICT strategy. Therefore, library services may discover that ICT services in their council are managed by a private company and that many of the partners required to deliver the Peoples Network have been pre-determined by the councils corporate ICT strategy. Alternatively, some may discover that they are in the vanguard of networking policy in their authority and therefore have an opportunity to shape their authoritys ICT policy.

What are partnerships?

There is no single definition of partnership. It can be used to describe anything from informal co-operation to joint-venture companies to small projects to major regeneration schemes. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) is also an example of a specific type of partnership working. It can even be used to describe a style of working rather than a structure - where council ICT services have been contracted out to private companies both parties, client and contractor, are usually keen to stress that they are working in partnership to reach jointly agreed objectives. This is to distinguish it from earlier forms of compulsory competitive tendering where there was often a rigid adherence to contract terms and little attempt to build a constructive relationship between client and contractor. 
However, the following practical definition, slightly adapted from Making Partnerships Work, is a useful starting point, identifying a number of the key ingredients for success:

Two or more organisations acting together by contributing their diverse resources in the furtherance of a common vision that has clearly defined goals and objectives [9]. 

Working together

There are a number of key pointers to getting partnerships right - like all relationships you need to keep working at it! A typical process would be:

At the start

  • Identifying the challenge or problem to be tackled
  • Getting to know the potential partners and what they have to offer the project. First think of the client group. What role can they play and how? They must be consulted and be seen to endorse the project. They may be able to play a more active role as a partner to the project. This is a key consideration and many funding agencies make community involvement a criterion for awards. 
  • Mutual recognition that a partnership approach will add value - the idea of collaborative advantage and that no single institution could achieve the objectives of the project itself
  •  Jointly developing the necessary skills and capacity to undertake the project.

Lampost Project in Walsall

Objective: To create a mobile flexible learning centre with IT workstations including online access via ISDN lines located in neighbourhood lampposts - to provide doorstep learning opportunities with tutor support in seven deprived areas.

Partners: Walsall MBC Library Service, Walsall Local Committees, Walsall Health Action Zone, local colleges, BT.

Governance: A steering group chaired by the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) Co-ordinator and with representatives of all the partners. Approval required by each partner organisation for key decisions. The Library Service is the project manager.

Cost: 280,000 over two years with launch in March 2000.

Funding: SRB, Health Action Zone, Council, BT. Included are in-kind contributions such as tutorial support from the colleges and infrastructure for ISDN lines from BT.

Benefits: Tackling social inclusion; building a healthy community; enhancing library network; providing transferable model of provision; experience of partnership.

Defining the project

  • Developing a shared vision and objectives for the project
  • Undertaking a needs assessment exercise to scope the project
  • Determining the structure, including governance and management of the project
  • Understanding the roles and responsibilities of each partner within the project.

Managing the project

  • Developing an action plan based on the vision and objectives of the project
  • Keeping all partners on board the during project - all must be able to feel equal partners
  • Developing quantitative and qualitative measures of success
  • Developing an exit strategy.


Loss of control - By its very nature partnership involves sharing responsibilities: skills of influencing and negotiation become as important as directing. Public library authorities need to be sure of their identity and core skills and expertise if they are to function effectively within a partnership. In theory the nurturing of potential partners should precede funding bids but in reality library managers have to be opportunists and partnerships will be formed to chase funding opportunities. Successful partnerships may lay the basis for future success in new projects.

Different perspectives - Even though different institutions can sign up to a common vision and set of objectives, institutional priorities can still interfere. Often this is caused by the different funding mechanisms of the institutions involved, although sector cultures can also be important. For instance: to the library services, offering free access to learning opportunities may be seen as a key part of their mission; to the colleges, however, the fees that come with enrolled students are the main source of income. Different perspectives such as these may take time to resolve and need sensitive handling. 

Dealing with difficulties - These are likely to be faced at some time in all partnerships. A clear partnership leader with a troubleshooting role is required, or perhaps an individual, without a vested interest, who is recognised as a referee.

If things really go wrong - The more complex a partnership, and the larger a project, the more difficult it will be to unravel if things go badly wrong and the partnership is unable to deliver on the projects objectives. There needs to be a clear exit strategy and a firm understanding as to how assets and liabilities will be shared on the termination of a partnership.

Sustainability - Many partnerships are based on projects with short-term funding and the question arises as to what happens when the funding stops. Often library managers will have sought commitments from the partners as to future arrangements but these will rarely be binding. There may also be elements of sustainability within the project itself, such as improving the skills base of the library workforce. An act of faith is often involved based on the premise that success is likely to breed further success.

Public/private partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative

Public/private partnerships are the governments preferred method of managing major public capital investment projects essentially they are about levering in capital funding and expertise from the private sector to help finance high-cost projects. They will normally involve the setting up of a joint-venture company (where local authority influence is circumscribed by law) or a non profit distributing organisation (NPDO) outside council control. The loans associated with traditional local authority capital projects are replaced by private sector investment, and the debt charges on the loans are replaced by service charges to the council (or possibly users) for use of the facility or associated services. Such public/private partnerships can be politically contentious.

The Private Finance Initiative is one form of public/private partnership. It is strongly promoted by the government and may be the only realistic option for some councils when major capital expenditure is required. It has been estimated that the Peoples Network will cost 730 million over six years. Some funding will come from central government and the Lottery but local authorities will still be expected to make up the shortfall.

Key principles of PFI

Long-term contract - for an ICT project this would be typically 5-10 years.

Risk transfer - mainly from public to private sector; this has the political advantage of taking the financing out of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR).

Revenue credits - PFI schemes attract revenue credits from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to help an authority cope with the revenue spending implications of any scheme. Many are concerned that these payments are frontloaded so that authorities may actually profit from such schemes in the short run but face budgetary problems in the long term.

Output specification - this leaves the private sector partner with some freedom in determining how such outputs will be achieved. 

Performance-related payments - naturally the private sector company will be concerned to make a return on its investment. Libraries may have problems in identifying the income streams necessary to make such a proposition attractive to the private sector and therefore may be bundled up into more general schemes. Normally the assets will return to the authority once the partnership is over.

Some pitfalls

  • Experience has shown that there may be difficulties in combining building and ICT schemes. Building schemes are generally for longer periods than is advisable for ICT schemes - 20-30 years rather than 5-10 years. The assets involved are very different: in buildings it is land and bricks and mortar, whereas in ICT schemes it is software development and expertise. Private sector companies are only starting to form the necessary consortia to deal with such mixed projects.
  • Sufficient flexibility must be built into PFI schemes to allow for developments to be incorporated - remember the Peoples Network only became a reality two years ago (1998).
  • It is doubtful whether an individual library ICT project would be large enough to justify a PFI approach - most should fall in the 5 - 20 million range. This may mean regional procurement or the bundling up of library projects into more general council projects - perhaps a full National Grid for Learning specification or at least one for the cultural sector.

A new way of working

Everything appears to be changing all the time. A new vision for public libraries articulated in New Library: The Peoples Network; a transformation in the role and structure of local government; similar changes in every other public sector organisation; and a blurring of the distinctions between the public, voluntary and private sectors. This may be new for libraries and librarians, although, compared to other parts of local authorities, libraries at least start with a tradition of co-operative working. It is important to remember it is new for everyone else as well. Librarians have the opportunity to shape and influence this wider agenda of change through the opportunities of the Peoples Network. But in order to be successful in the new environment we will need to develop the skills necessary to work effectively in partnerships of all kinds. 


[1] Modernising Government. The Stationery Office, 1999. (Cm 4310). ISBN:010 143102 3

[2] Best Value Site of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

[3] Blair, T. Leading the Way: a New Vision for Local Government. Institute for Public Policy Research, 1998. ISBN: 1 86030 075 8

[4] EARL

[5] The Peoples Network Online 

[6] ICT Learning Centres

[7] Community Access to Lifelong Learning Programme (CALL)

[8] EU funds. The following are useful starting points.

[9] Wilson, A and Charlton, K. Making Partnerships Work: a Practical Guide for the public, private, voluntary and community sectors. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1997. (Prepared and printed by York Publishing Services Ltd). ISBN: 1 899987 39 8 

Other relevant resources

Public/Private Partnership Programme (The 4PS) - A Local Government Association unit advising local authorities on all forms of public/private partnerships including PFI

Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Public/Private Partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative. (Guidance on PPP and PFI for local authorities.)

Treasury Taskforce on PPP and PFI. (General guidance on PFI for government departments and public sector in general.) The taskforce will soon be replaced by Partnerships UK and you may need to search for this as an alternative. Try the main index to government services at:

Competitiveness Joint Committee. PFI: Getting it Straight: An Occasional Paper. CIPFA, 2000.

Libecon. The UK pages on the Libecon web site provide access to the Annual Library Plans (ALPs) of English public library authorities. Each authoritys ALP will include sections on ICT and partnerships.


This is one of a series of issue papers which will be produced by the EARL Networked Services Policy Taskgroup. UKOLN, the Library Association and EARL member libraries participate in the taskgroup. Queries about the issue papers series should be addressed to Penny Garrod, the project manager for the initiative:

Penny Garrod
The University of Bath
Bath BA1 7AY

Telephone: 01225 826711

UKOLN is funded by the Resource, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC's Electronic Libraries Programme and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.

If you wish to comment on any issues raised in this paper, please use the Feedback option on the main Networked Services Policy Task Group web site.

EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking The Library Association UKOLN