Reflections on collaborative working and ecosystem development

December 14, 2023
Isobel Abrams
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Isobel Abrams

During the CARE programme, we worked collaboratively across the Good Practice and Partnerships (GPP) team and Client Access to Rights and Essentials (CARE) in the West Midlands.

This was the first internal partnership of its kind at Refugee Action, so it was a learning experience for us all. As the Project Coordinator for the GPP strand of work, I was lucky to work closely with CARE’s manager, Berna Djinaj. We enjoyed our collaborative working and I learned a lot from Berna, who has a wealth of knowledge to share.

With the programme coming to a close, I wanted to reflect on our experience in the hope that it can inform future internal partnerships. I spoke to Berna about her experience working with the GPP team in the last weeks of the CARE programme to get her perspective. 


What were your expectations about working with the GPP team?

“I did have some concerns, simply due the external pressures of the hostile environment and high demand for services. I was concerned that there was a lack of skill and capacity at local organisations to adequately meet this need, as many had not had training on proper advice and signposting. I was unsure how we would create an ecosystem of better-equipped partners within the current climate, with organisations constantly under so much pressure that it is hard for them to find the time to attend training. I hoped that GPP could find a way to engage these organisations and support them to develop their services. 

For myself and my team, I wanted to develop my skills and think more strategically about meeting our targets. I hadn’t worked with GPP before, so I knew this collaboration would help my own understanding of what the team does and how their work can support our frontline work. 

I also knew that our team had a lot to offer GPP and hoped it would be a mutual learning experience. We have on-the-ground knowledge to suggest which organisations and areas to target for this work and how to approach people. I wanted to see this knowledge implemented strategically to develop the local ecosystem. We have existing partnerships with local organisations, which formed solid building blocks for GPP to form their own partnerships in the West Midlands. This meant that GPP wasn’t starting from scratch and could mobilise the programme quickly.”

What was your experience of the collaboration?

“My hopes were achieved, and the programme was mobilised quickly which was great. GPP were able to look at our on-the-ground knowledge and create plans with organisations for how they wanted to develop, and how they could do this in a sustainable way.

It worked well from the beginning and a big reason for that was Isobel’s approach. She set up regular communication with me from the start and we maintained contact throughout. I was always invited to the partner meetings and given time to speak about CARE and connect with partners. We both promoted each other’s work in the region and shared any contacts or networks we came across. 

It was a good working relationship from our first meeting and it was clear that this would be a mutual learning experience, which is what I hoped for. From the first meetings, I was sharing contacts and insight with Isobel which she could use to build a network of partners

In return, I was learning a lot more about GPP’s ways of thinking strategically about the whole West Midlands region and how to strengthen the local ecosystem by improving legal literacy and engaging Experts by Experience (EbEs). This showed me how wider strategic work could directly impact our frontline service delivery, and how important it is to view these strands of work alongside each other.

We had been using statistics and percentages to capture our Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL), but I knew GPP might have other suggestions for how we engage people and collect feedback. The surveys Isobel piloted are a good example of this and showed how we can capture more in-depth feedback alongside the usual methods. I hope we can take the learning from this to develop different ways of collecting feedback in future. 

During the collaboration, communication across the teams improved significantly and both teams now have a better understanding of each other’s work. We met regularly to set clear goals and work out how to complement each other’s work without duplication. It’s been a really positive experience and I hope it can be a blueprint for future internal collaborations.”

What advice would you give for teams collaborating in future?

“I would say to go for it. You will always learn something new and have something to offer others as well

It is really important to have open and transparent communication between teams from the beginning. Take the time to set clear milestones and goals, and establish who is responsible for each element of the project and corresponding targets. This makes it easier to not duplicate work and reduces conflict as agreements have been put into place. 

Being flexible is also essential if you want to learn from each other. Take other suggestions on board and implement changes when you need to. You need to be able to accommodate different ways of working, whilst keeping your shared goals in mind. 

Within your own team, make sure everyone understands the collaboration, even if they are not working on the programme directly. This builds knowledge across the organisation of different ways of working and makes sure everyone feels integrated. 

Finally, I would say ensure that external partners understand the collaboration. Invite the other team along to external meetings to answer questions about their parts of the programme and how everyone is contributing . Make a habit of copying each other into external communication so that everyone is on the same page with partners and there is no confusion externally about your programme.”

How did this collaboration support your work in the West Midlands?

We can already see the positive impacts of the programme in the region

CARE has a lot of new partnerships with community organisations working on the frontline with clients. Our referral pathways have been strengthened, as local organisations now know more about us and how we can help. 

The improved legal literacy in the ecosystem is invaluable. GPP were able to use CARE’s knowledge of the local area to target places with limited legal aid provision, such as Stoke-on-Trent and Coventry. In these towns, GPP supported multiple organisations to train staff in OISC immigration advice and general legal literacy. This targeted approach has a direct impact on clients in the area, who now have more places to turn to for advice at different levels.

Offering training for EbE projects has started important conversations within more organisations about shifting power. Multiple organisations have now implemented EbE projects into their overall strategies and awareness about the importance of EbE engagement has increased. 

To summarise, developing this ecosystem of partners who are well-trained and confident in their skills and expertise has improved client access to support in the West Midlands. I hope that our partners are able to keep up their amazing work to continue building on the achievements of the last 2 years.”


You can read more about Berna’s work on the CARE Programme here. You can read further reflections about our MEL design here.  

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