The last decade has witnessed a significant move towards new modes of governing that are based on coordination and collaboration. In particular, local level partnerships have been widely introduced around the world. There are few comprehensive approaches for researching the effects of these partnerships. The aim of this paper is to outline a network approach that combines structure and agency based explanations to research partnerships in health. Network research based on two Primary Care Partnerships (PCPs) in Victoria is used to demonstrate the utility of this approach. The paper examines multiple types of ties between people (structure), and the use and value of relationships to partners (agency), using interviews with the people involved in two PCPs – one in metropolitan Melbourne and one in a rural area.
Network maps of ties based on work, strategic information and policy advice, show that there are many strong connections in both PCPs. Not surprisingly, PCP staff are central and highly connected. Of more interest are the ties that are dependent on these dedicated partnership staff, as they reveal which actors become weakly linked or disconnected without them. Network measures indicate that work ties are the most dispersed and strategic information ties are the most concentrated around fewer people. Divisions of general practice are weakly linked, while local government officials and Department of Human Services (DHS) regional staff appear to play important bridging roles. Finally, the relationships between partners have changed and improved, and most of those interviewed value their new or improved links with partners.
Improving service coordination and health promotion planning requires engaging people and building strong relationships. Mapping ties is a useful means for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of partnerships, and network analysis indicates concentration and dispersion, the importance of particular individuals, and the points at which they will fragment. A narrative approach adds an assessment of whether the partnerships are being used and valued. The approach outlined here, which examines structure and agency as separate but related explanations, has much to offer in examining partnerships.