How we do partnership

Learn more about the history of the SPF and the benefits partnership working has for employers, staff, patients and service users.

1 May 2020

The SPF recognises what a powerful tool partnership working between employers, policy makers and trade unions can be, and how it makes a real difference to patient care and influences employment practice in healthcare and beyond.

This page contains details on the benefits and importance of true partnership working. You will also find useful case studies, tools and resources to support successful partnership working.

The history of the SPF

Although social partnership arrangements have been in place since 1998, a refreshed approach to partnership working was needed following the major announcement on transforming community services in 2006. The announcement caused concerns and difficulties for stakeholders in the NHS for England. The concerns were addressed by Patricia Hewitt the then health secretary and the ensuing discussions, facilitated by the TUC, led to an agreement by the end of that year which established the SPF.

A key principle of the SPF was that there should be no surprises caused by government announcements on NHS strategy and developments. The SPF, chaired by a minister, has developed its role and ensured that major initiatives in the health service including, most recently, the organisational change arising from the 2021 Health and Care Bill, are dealt with in partnership. The effectiveness of the SPF has been further enhanced by the work undertaken in sub groups such as the Workforce Issues Group and the Violence Reduction sub group.

Benefits of partnership working

Link between staff engagement and organisational effectiveness

In 2011, the Aston University Business School conducted research on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care, which provided evidence of the link between good staff experience and good patient experience. More recent research has identified links between engagement and absence levels, employee engagement, sickness absence and agency spend in NHS trusts (March 2018) and has highlighted the links between NHS staff experience and patient satisfaction: analysis of surveys from 2014 and 2015 (February 2018).

The NHS Constitution emphasises the importance of staff engagement and partnership working and requires the NHS to commit to 'engage staff in decisions that affect them and the services they provide, individually, through representative organisations and through local partnership working arrangements.' The potentially serious impact of a disengaged workforce was highlighted in the Francis Inquiry Report (2013).

National and regional, partnership working:

  • gives an opportunity for employers and trade unions to contribute their experiences and ideas on the development of policy that impacts on the health and social care workforce
  • gives partners the ability to assess the likely impact of emerging policy on the NHS workforce and to mitigate risk
  • enables more effective implementation of policy
  • supports high standards of employment practice.

Read a summary of what the national SPF has achieved and its priority work areas.

What partnership working means to partners of the SPF

The SPF enables partners to work together to promote effective partnership working on the workforce implications of policy and strategy. It brings together representatives from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), NHS England and NHS Improvement, Health Education England and the NHS Trade Unions (representing NHS staff) and NHS Employers (which provides the employers' voice). This model enables early discussion, debate and involvement in the development and implementation of policy that impacts on the workforce.

  • Ministers and the DHSC value the SPF, as it provides a forum which upholds high levels of cooperation and commitment to improve health and social care outcomes for patients. The forum provides valuable input and insight into the workforce implications of policy development and supports the implementation of policies.

    Working in partnership across the health and care landscape and engaging with the workforce is key to making the best decisions about patient care. Evidence shows that engaged, satisfied employees are more productive and that in the NHS, staff and patient experience are closely linked. DHSC believes that engaging NHS staff in decisions that affect them is a crucial factor in the delivery of safe and high-quality care for our patients.

  • The NHS Trade Unions believe it is in their members' best interests to engage in partnership working with governments and employers, to seek solutions to challenges and problems. Partnership working puts an onus on both employers and trade unions to engage and consult on all decisions that affect staff. Partnership underpins and facilitates sound and effective employer and trade union relations and has a track record of delivering real gains for staff and patients. As a crucial determinant of the quality of healthcare, a growing body of evidence-based research shows that effective partnership working and staff engagement in NHS organisations improves the patient experience and healthcare outcomes.

  • The SPF allows employers to get an early sight of health policy. It also allows them to give their perspective on how policy should be developed and highlight the possible workforce implications of a policy. In particular, the forum allows employers to influence how proposals are implemented and, through discussions with partners, to make sure they are workable and realise maximum benefits for patients.

  • Responsible for the wise investment of over £100bn of taxpayers’ resources, NHSEI makes critical decisions about patient care which affect the NHS and the people who work in it. The SPF is an invaluable forum which allows for the workforce implications of those decisions to be discussed with employers and staff representatives in an atmosphere of constructive partnership.

    NHSEI is also responsible for supporting foundation trusts and NHS trusts to give patients consistently safe, high quality, compassionate care within local health systems that are financially sustainable.

    With the workforce at the heart of all NHS providers it is imperative that NHSEI maintains strong working channels through the SPF to fully understand any concerns and issues that partners may have. There is clear evidence showing the link between staff and patient satisfaction, and NHSEI believes that a well-motivated and committed workforce is of benefit to patients.

  • HEE is responsible for the education, training and personal development of every member of staff, and recruiting for values in order to deliver a better health and healthcare workforce for England. HEE is committed to working in partnership with its recognised trade union partners, to maximise both the successful delivery of HEE’s strategy and corporate objectives and to work for the wider development and benefit of the service in general.