A partnership board set up to approach service changes in a co-operative spirit has had impressive results. Barbara Millar reports

Until a couple of years ago it would have been virtually unthinkable for Unison and Greater Glasgow health board to engage in civilised face- to-face discussions about service changes.

'It was more likely that dialogue between us would be carried on through the pages of the Glasgow Evening Times,' says Dave Watson, senior regional officer with Unison in Scotland. 'We all felt there had to be a better way.'

The better way - which pre-empted the government's partnership approach - culminated in a Greater Glasgow Partnership Forum with representatives from the board, trusts and local authority, managers and staff.

Together they look at the health services and health issues in Glasgow and determine how they can be taken forward. 'All partners have the right to be involved, informed and to influence strategic matters,' says Mr Watson.

'There is a transparent and open process of communication and consultation, the contribution of all the partners is valued and their sectional interests are acknowledged - there are occasions when we agree to disagree.'

In a relatively short period of working in this way quite a lot has been achieved, says Greater Glasgow health board chief executive Chris Spry.

'We have agreed on organisational changes, policy which embraces the principles of securing employment, as far as we can, at a time of changes in organisational structures.'

Practical measures include a redeployment centre to match people at risk from change with opportunities to relocate to other jobs.

The health improvement programme forms the focus of the partnership. Next year's programme will include a section on human resource issues and the HR consequences of service changes.

'It sets out the agenda of issues that need to be tackled in Glasgow if we are going to marry up service changes with employee opportunities and to help people thrive in a time of change,' says Mr Spry.

But partnership working is difficult, he warns. 'It requires high energy from all concerned. You have to work at it and keep the thinking fresh or you run the risk that it will simply become a re-badged joint consultative committee.'

The culture has to be changed, he adds. 'NHS staff can be very cynical. They love the job they do but hate the system, and don't believe managers care about the same things they do.

'We have to address this issue, otherwise we will remain an underachieving organisation.'

The partnership approach is now being taken up across Scotland in the wake of last year's human resources strategy, Towards a New Way of Working.

All NHS organisations in Scotland are now required to develop partnership agreements with staff and their representatives, and a partnership forum, made up of managers, staff members, staff representatives and independent advisers, has been set up to help them. The forum held its first conference in Dunblane recently with 350 delegates.

Willy Coupar, director of the Involvement and Participation Association, told the conference that partnership meant 'recognition that change is an everyday reality and everyone has responsibility to manage the process'.

It was not 'a fluffy, soft option', he said. 'It is challenging, but potentially very rewarding.

'For staff it provides opportunities to be involved in how the workplace experience is shaped, and for trade unions it offers opportunities to get more involved in decision-making than has been the case in the past.'

'This means, when the real trouble comes, people are all in it together. Everyone has a shared ownership in finding a solution.'

Mr Coupar told the conference that partnership did not mean managers doing everything unions suggested, nor did it mean unions 'turning over and having their tummy tickled'.

But Mike Fuller, regional officer with MSF, says it is difficult to convince some staff that this is the case. 'We are having to use lots of persuasion, education and internal debate to overcome decades of cynicism. It is a slow process.'

John Lambie, head of health with Unison in Scotland, agrees that there has been suspicion about the partnership drive, 'but I am optimistic that progress will be made and that staff will see the benefits'.

He adds: 'Most trade union lay officials and full-time officers recognise that there is a new agenda and that the government and the Scottish Office are serious about the partnership ethos.'

Both are keen to see a roll-out of the successful two-day training programme, recently piloted by Highlands Communities trust, which brought managers and staff representatives together to learn about partnership working.

Meanwhile, Scottish TUC deputy general secretary Grahame Smith adds his seal of approval to the concept. 'The STUC and our NHS affiliates are committed to making it work,' he says.

'I'm sure some people regard it as a form of workers' control. Others may see it as class collaboration. It is neither - perhaps it is the third way.'