The Path to Partnership  

The SharingValueAsia Summit held in Singapore on 9 October hosted numerous experts and a diverse range of practitioners from business, civil society and government to discuss the concept of public-private collaboration. Throughout the event, one common message was evident– collaboration and partnerships are key to solving the world’s most complex problems but the path to partnership is difficult.

Encouraging dialogue across the public-private divide and creating sustainable relationships within and amongst the sectors is vital to solving the most pressing problems of our time. As a sponsor of this high-level summit, FIA hosted a panel discussion on the “Path to Partnership” which examined the challenges that partnerships can face.

The panel session was chaired by Professor Ann Florini, Professor of Public Policy in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. The eminent panel of international experts included Marianne Smallwood, Regional Partnerships Builder at USAID in Bangkok, Kavita Prakash-Mani, Special Advisor to the World Economic Forum’s Grow Asia initiative, Zee Yoong Kang, CEO of Singapore’s Health Promotion Board and Anu Madgavkar, Senior Fellow with the McKinsey Global Institute in India.

Each of the panellists shared stories of their experience of building partnerships, outlined some of the challenges they faced, and offered insights into working through those challenges towards a successful outcome. They highlighted that collaborations can become difficult if there are conflicting or mismatched objectives between parties or a lack of consensus on priority areas. Sometimes, having an unclear or poorly defined goal can lead to potential conflicts of interest, which can be a hindrance to success.

Of several solutions proposed by the experts, one key piece of advice was to identify two essential role-players within the partnership: an agent of change and an honest broker. Through a series of productive discussions, additional roles were identified as mission critical to creating a successful partnership:

The Driver: It is important to identify the driver of the partnership. Each sector needs to find a strong rationale for entering a collaborative partnership –each partner should understand the goals and objectives and evaluate how these shared goals align with their individual objectives and longer term strategies. By correctly identifying the rationale behind entering a partnership and by acknowledging a common goal and vision, each actor can benefit from the collaboration. For instance, in Singapore, the Government and the food industry teamed up to develop a new code of advertising guidelines. The driver for the Government was the well-being of its citizens and ensuring that public concerns were met by having responsible advertising guidelines. For the industry, the driver was to work with the Government in enabling a fair and level playing-field for the restriction of some types of advertising while recognising that advertising is an essential tool for the promotion of healthier food choices and the driver of product innovation and reformulation.

An Agent of Change: Partnerships are always driven by a common need, but usually, the collaborative effort is shouldered by one entity, at least to begin with. The initiator or an Agent of Change is essential in kick-starting a partnership.

An Honest Broker: By having a champion for the partnership, an entity who can manage the strategy of the collaboration is important. The value of creating a dedicated Secretariat effort cannot be understated. By having a neutral secretariat, or ‘an honest broker’ to serve as a trusted mediator between the partners, common conflicts of interest can often be avoided. Lack of clarity in vision of partnerships is a constant issue in partnerships. Having a dedicated Secretariat can help to ensure that all parties share a common vision and are working toward a common goal. It is important for all parties to have a consultative process right from the beginning, which a Secretariat can help to facilitate. For collaborative efforts, it is important for the Secretariat to undertake the day to day responsibilities and drive the agenda forward. In the example of the partnership on advertising guidelines in Singapore, a special committee was created to ensure that the objectives of this partnership were laid out and that the heavy lifting was delegated to the industry associations.

Win-Win: A partnership can always be initiated and championed by one sector or partner. However, it is imperative to seek shared victories – resulting in a win-win situation for all partners involved. At the offset, the partners should be absolutely clear about the overall goals and how those goals can translate into a victory for the vision of that partner. For instance, through the public-private consortium in Singapore on advertising guidelines, the Government had a win on many fronts. It positioned itself as a trail-blazing country that was proficient in leading a dialogue with key stakeholders to achieve a benefit for its citizens that was greater than the sum of its parts. Singapore can now be held as an example of best practise in working with the private sector in solving complex health issues such as obesity. It was a win for the food industry because it was part of a consultative process that was inclusive of its views.

Trust: A common message echoed by all panellists was that partnerships and collaborative efforts are built on trust. The amount of shared victories, potential achievements and success opportunities are thwarted if there is a lack of trust amongst the participants. At the end of the day, it is inevitable that the lead actors need to trust each other in cross sectoral collaborations. It is only through a safe place of trust that partnerships can thrive. In Singapore, it is crucial that the Government can trust the food industry to uphold its commitments as per the guidelines. The various partners will now need to rely on each other to deliver a successful outcome from this visionary partnership.

In concluding the session, Prof Florini said that, “The concept of partnerships has emerged because traditional methods of problem solving are not up to task in the twenty-first century. The SharingValueAsia Summit is just the type of platform we need to launch conversations on how to achieve effective partnerships that solve problems while meeting the goals of all stakeholders. We need to institutionalise and professionalise the practice of partnerships in order to overcome the many common complex obstacles and challenges that we face.”

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