by Inga Narbutaite Aflaki, Karlstad University

It is springtime in Sweden and a feeling of euphoria is in the air at a national conference on new forms of collaboration on more equal terms between public authorities and NGOs, so called IOP (“idéburna offentliga partnerskap”) partnerships. Interestingly, and in contrast to developments in some other places in Europe, political support for this is becoming ever stronger. Indeed politics even takes the lead even before the legal issues are settled!

 

This is news even for a country such as Sweden where, regardless of the historically strong civil society, the state has been hovering over the public sphere and public services in recent decades. This remains true even if we take into account slight changes in state power due to subcontracting of welfare services. What has happened in autumn of 2015 when huge numbers of asylum seekers (sometimes 10,000 a week) kept entering Sweden in search of shelter, can be seen as a critical event that put the public sector, especially local municipalities, on their knees and paved the way for new types of collaborative solutions. Does this mean that we are now heading towards a shift in paradigm in public NGO relations on how to address complex social needs? Many actors are drawn towards the flow. The city of Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden, is a forefront municipality in promoting the IOP model and it currently collaborates in 13 such partnerships on social or integration issues. It is becoming a little bit of an “IOP municipality” even if, of course, such partnerships are just a complement to the contractual and other traditional collaboration forms. This being said, recognising a need of new type of collaborative relationship in a municipality that has become used to taking care of important social issues by itself takes some courage. Introducing local IOP partnerships requires both specific context and a strong political support.

 

Is then IOP a panacea for all seasons? Truly not, even if it tends to be discussed and  sometimes even applied in practice a little bit as the solution for a variety of needs. This might include securing more long-term financing of important civil society operations where competitive market actors are deemed lacking such as organising relief centres for women threatened by violence or where municipalities simply lack policy legitimacy or capacity.

 

Surely many civil society services are of value due to their specific nature (such as their ability to see a whole person and willingness to help via volunteers) and are worth preserving. The question however is when and how the specific roles and activities of NGOs can be advantageous or of added value in collaborative arrangements such as IOP.  Here a rather interesting example is an IOP in Gothenburg where the municipality entered into a collaborative partnership with seven NGOs with the aim of providing better reception and integration of asylum seeking minors. Not simply because the challenge of accommodating the youngsters was too insurmountable but primarily because the desirable solution and quality of services could not ever be handled by the public sector alone, or indeed, by any other actor on its own. Simply subcontracting individual actors would not provide a solution. In such collaborative arrangements on complex social issues the added value of civil society organisations becomes more tangible and more relevant. The IOP case is therefore a focus in a Swedish study for InnoSI.

 

What makes an IOP interesting both from a researcher and a societal perspective? For example, we still look for an answer concerning what an IOP is, and in what ways an IOP diverges from other public-NGO collaboration forms in Sweden. So far the most popular and largest IOP partnership in Gothenburg on asylum seekers is publically presented as a collaboration where it is not (only?) about single organisations defending their interests or a more formal collaboration agreement without much practical relevance, rather it is depicted as an on-going creative process. A model where the collaboration is consciously being developed around commonly perceived challenges and goals, a process that can lead to mutual learning.

 

This means it is not just the courage it takes to recognise a need for such partnerships that is at issue here – as the legal grounds for it are still not firmly established in the Swedish legislation. More importantly it also requires an understanding on both sides of what it takes to develop a new model for collaborative relationships.

 

I sit down during the conference with a group of practitioners and public actors for a group discussion in which I want to know their response to my question: What is it that they want to change in their relationships with the IOP partnerships? What is the difference in their relationships as compared to contracts or traditional grants? So far  the conference has raised more questions than it provided answers, and the responses vary greatly. Is an IOP not just another and rather questionable form of financing the civil society organisations and their own model solutions? I can feel the remaining confusion among different parties, although curiosity takes over. . . It is still a process of trial and learning. The group reaches the conclusion that IOP after all is not an old wine in new bottles. It is a totally new construction, or so it should be seen, a live relation-building process based on trust and respect, a more equal or balanced relationship as compared to the other collaborative forms, a process in which both parties continuously explore how they can contribute to a societal solution and characterised by openness to what they can give and learn from each other. What is more, it is not simply about following an agreed process, but rather about living the process! At its best, it is about democratising local policies for social development through the voice role of NGOs early in designing collaborative policy processes.  IOP best suits complex, new social needs for which no single party or organisation has a satisfactory solution. Might it even be so that IOP may impact and in the long run transform the steering and management systems of the participant organisations?

 

Regardless of the high expectations, several major issues remain that are important to address, such as are civil society organisations ready to allow public sector involvement with their ideas/model? How can an effective and more equal collaboration between civil society actors be established in practice? The politics has gone before the legislation regarding IOP development.  Will it suffice purely with the political will to justify the IOP partnerships? Or does the awareness of new type of relationships and sincere attempts to achieve and sustain them matter equally? Not simply because it is another nice arena for the exchange of ideas but also because collaboration of public authorities and NGOs may add value to policies for the groups in need in ways none of them could provide on their own. A remaining important task for us who research such collaborations is thus to explore the added value of IOP collaborations and the impact they may have.

 

 

 

 

Inga Narbutaite Aflaki

PhD, Senior lecturer in Political Science

Karlstad University

Sweden

www.kau.se

inganarb@kau.se