One Darlington, Perfectly Placed

PRIMO Risk Management Award 2009 for the city of Darlington.

Partnership working and building relationships to improve the future is now fundamental in public service delivery. ‘One Darlington: Perfectly Placed’, Darlington’s Sustainable Community Strategy sets out a vision for Darlington, with partnership working key to its delivery. However, partnership working involves risks as well as opportunities and embedding risk management within the culture of partnerships and developing effective governance arrangements are therefore vital for their success.

Interview with George Cornforth, Risk and Insurance Manager Darlington Borough Council

By Inge Sebregts

The Council’s 2008 Comprehensive Performance Assessment Report states that ‘partnership working is highly effective’ in Darlington. Key to this success has been the development of the Council’s Partnership Toolkit, to assist the risk management process. Rather than being a traditional paper-based manual, the Authority has developed an online, electronic, interactive toolkit. A series of online questions are required to be answered for each partnership focusing on risk and governance arrangements using tick boxes, ‘yes/no’ radio buttons and drop down menus. The user is channeled down different routes, depending upon answers given.

The system provides a ready-made partnership register; distinguishes between significant and other partnerships and automatically produces system-generated guidance and action points. These are managed and monitored through a system of Email alerts and a traffic-light dashboard. It also automatically provides links to a range of guidance and contact details should further assistance be required.

A Risk Register and Management Action Plan is in place for Darlington Borough Council risks for each partnership and to develop a culture of risk management within each partnership, the partnerships themselves have produced their own risk registers and action plans.

A Partnership Annual Review Form is completed by each Lead Officer and signed off by the appropriate Director each year detailing individual partnership objectives, performance, use of resources and value for money, issues and concerns, management action plans and control measures together with objectives for the coming year.

This information is used, as a base, to compile the Annual Review of Significant Partnerships Report to Cabinet by the Darlington Partnership Chief Executive, demonstrating clear governance arrangements in place, a common approach to managing risk, whilst detailing the achievements of all partnerships during the past year based on the five themes of a prosperous, aspiring, healthy, greener and safer Darlington.


Some very positive initiatives and outcomes have been achieved during the past year by adopting this risk-based approach with partnership working within the different sectors within the five themes. A few successes include

  • Recognition within 2008 CPA Report for effective partnership working between the Council and local agencies
  • 39% reduction in theft from motor vehicles
  • 10% reductions in criminal damage, 15% reduced violent crime
  • A successful Local Motion project produced a 9% reduction in the number of car journeys, 15% increase in walking, 65% increase in cycling including 30% of schools taking part in the ‘Bike it’ initiative.
  • Successful multi-agency campaign ‘Summer Nights’ Initiative tackling youth anti-social behaviour, street drinking reduced by 50% and a 28% reduction in incidents
  • Our partnership approach aknowledged by ALARM and PRIMO Europe

Why was the initiative required?

With the increased emphasis on the role of partnership working within Local Authorities there was a greater need to plan and monitor the Council’s involvement within partnerships. As partnership working bring risks as well as opportunities there was a need to ensure that there was effective  governance arrangements within partnerships, that the performance of each partnership was being monitored and that the Council’s resources were being effectively employed.

There were risks that partnership working and the commitments being undertaken by the Authority were being carried out in a piecemeal fashion with no corporate approach. In addition, although there was involvement within many ‘partnerships’ no definition of what is or is not a significant partnership actually existed.

The Authority also needed to demonstrate within the Use of Resources that partnership risks were being effectively managed and now, through the Comprehensive Area Assessment, that local partnerships are effective and working to deliver local people’s priorities.

Our approach

As a pilot, the Council worked with the Chief Executive of the Darlington Partnership to develop a paper Partnership Toolkit, offering guidance to assist Council staff in reviewing current partnership working, risk and governance arrangements and give corporate advice to those who wished to be involved within partnerships. The pilot was originally intended to be applied to the Crime and Disorder Reduction and the Learning Partnerships, however as both had evolved into new partnerships they would now be set up in line with the new toolkit.

The pilot sparked debate. It was agreed that the development of an electronic toolkit, available within the Council’s Intranet service, comprising of an on-line questionnaire, to be completed for each partnership would be more pro-active, achieve greater results and further raise awareness of the need to adopt a risk-based approach rather than develop a paper-based strategy.

A clear definition of a partnership was also required so as to distinguish between public/private partnerships, procurement partnerships and PFI contracts. In addition, as several Use of Resources Key Lines of Enquiry questions related only to ‘significant’ partnerships, the toolkit should facilitate the identification of significant partnerships based on factors such as potential impact on objectives, resources invested and its influence upon policy.


The new electronic toolkit, available within the Council’s Intranet service, now comprises an on-line questionnaire for each partnership and the response to the questions.

  • Are captured and automatically populate a central partnership database
  • The database automatically determines which partnerships are classed as significant
  • Whilst completing the questionnaire each partnership lead officer receives appropriate guidance and advice, online and tailored to needs depending upon answers given
  • Advice received is confirmed by the automatic production, by the system, of a risk action plan at the end of the questionnaire highlighting issues to address
  • The responses captured in the database are monitored by the Council’s Risk Manager who ensures that data is updated and appropriate actions are taken upon any identified issues to address

Importantly the toolkit underpins and complements developing work within the Darlington Sustainable Community Strategy, One Darlington : Perfectly Placed within the five themes of a prosperous, aspiring, healthy, greener and safer Darlington.  Using the toolkit has also raised the profile of the need to embed risk management within the culture of each partnership through the development of Risk Registers and Management Action Plans. In addition the Annual Review Process of Partnerships by Lead Officers and Directors has a direct link in the production of the Annual Report to Cabinet of Significant Partnerships by the Chief Executive of the Darlington Partnership.

To complement this approach, Partnership Risk Management Training has been undertaken within the Authority with invitations to our partners who have also attended. Also the Risk Managers from the various main organisations meet regularly to discuss partnership risk management issues.

Innovation regarding our approach

The use of technology, rather than adopting a paper-based strategy, to manage risk and governance issues within partnerships has been very successful. It is popular with lead officers and our partners and has also raised the profile of the need to embed risk management within partnerships. As one lead officer commented, a paper strategy, once written, can be put on a shelf to ‘gather dust’; this pro-active use of technology is practical, ‘hands-on’ and actually assists lead officers to manage risk,  adopting a common approach across all partnerships.

This approach identified that one partnership was unlikely to deliver its objectives, as a result it has been reviewed and re-evaluated and has now been successfully reformed following consultation between the various partners and service users.

The Council’s innovative approach to managing partnership risk has been recognised by ALARM and the toolkit was featured within their publication ‘Partnership Risks – Issues, Solutions and Examples of Best Practice’. The Council was also invited to demonstrate the toolkit at the two day event, 2008 Excellent Partnerships in the North East Conference. Government Office North East also promoted our approach as best practice.  As a result of this positive publicity, other public sector bodies have enquired about our innovative approach to managing partnership risk. In addition, the Chief Executive of the Darlington Partnership has been invited to speak at national conferences regarding our pro-active approach.

Engaging with Partners and its Impact

Darlington’s Sustainable Community Strategy ‘One Darlington: Perfectly Placed’, has partnership working key to its delivery within the five themes of a prosperous, aspiring, healthy, greener and safer Darlington. For many years the Council, Police, Fire Service and Primary Care Trusts together with the private sector, community, voluntary and faith groups have worked in partnership with positive results.

The 2008 Comprehensive Performance Assessment confirms this. Darlington Borough Council is a Four Star Authority and the CPA Report states that partnership working is a ‘strength’ for the Authority.

There are many initiatives currently in place working around the five key themes. In 2008 one initiative, ‘Summer Nights’ tackled anti-social behaviour amongst the young. This was a multi-agency campaign involving the Council, Police, Fire and Health Services, as well as Drug and Alcohol Action Team, Housing, Youth Services and Licensing Teams and was a great success.

Research showed that anti-social behaviour and alcohol related incidents increased during the summer period. A campaign was devised to reduce this trend. Using shared information regarding known trouble spots within the town, linking also into other Locality Working Partnership initiatives, the Summer Nights initiative was launched. It was given this name to appeal to youngsters and publicity was launched in the local press, schools, local college magazine, but most importantly a dedicated Facebook site was set up for Summer Nights, which kept teenagers engaged and interested, with links to the Youth Service website together with advertising on local buses.

Soccer tournaments, ‘beach’ parties and many other leisure events were organised during the summer period. The Summer Nights initiative exceeded expectations by reducing the incidence of anti-social behaviour by 28%, street drinking was cut by 50% and large numbers of youngsters took part in organised activities. As a result of this success further initiatives have been devised with positive results.

In another programme, Darlington was one of three towns chosen to raise awareness of sustainability transport issues. The Local Motion project was born and its aim was to encourage people to walk, cycle and reduce car travel. 10,400 households in Darlington obtained Local Motion Club Membership; they receive regular information about walking, cycling and advice about leading healthy lifestyles. A dedicated Local Motion website has been launched to raise the profile of the initiative with popular cycling and walking festivals arranged.

This very successful initiative produced a 9% reduction in car trips, 15% increase in walking, 65% increase in cycling. Schools were also involved within the initiative to raise awareness of the benefits of walking and cycling, 30% of Darlington Schools joined the ‘Bike it’ project.

The Chief Executive of Darlington Primary Care Trust also raised £5,000 for charity by cycling 160 miles from coast-to-coast; his efforts, as part of the Darlington Partnership’s push to improve health within the town. Other healthy initiatives include community nutrition scheme including school breakfast clubs, weight management sessions and health promotions.

Positive work and results have been achieved within the Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership. There has been a 39% reduction in thefts from motor vehicles, 10% reduction in criminal damage and a 15% reduction in violent crime within Darlington

This partnership success is not, in many cases, the result of any one initiative but the culmination of various strategies and a willingness for the various organisations to work together in partnership, sharing ideas and information within the development of integrated working in Darlington.

Good risk management practices are integral in delivering this success. In Darlington an innovative model is in place that has proved to be popular and has introduced a common approach in managing risk, not only within the Authority but across all partnerships. It has also raised the profile of risk management within the decision-making process for partnerships and improved service delivery.