Promoting partnership working in the NHS

Creating the North East SPF – An exemplar model to follow

The creation of the North East and North Cumbria Social Partnership Forum (SPF) provides a model for others to follow on establishing, from scratch, a successful SPF.

Prior to 2016, the North East and North Cumbria did not have a regional SPF and there was uncertainty on what purpose it could have and how it could benefit employers and trade unions. NHS Employers national engagement service encouraged the HR director, health community and regional trade union leads to consider setting up a forum. Working together they identified the benefits it could bring and, under the leadership of joint management and trade union chairs, the North East and North Cumbria SPF was established.

About the area

The North East and North Cumbria region is made up of ten NHS Organisations which provide a range of services include acute, community and mental health and learning disabilities. There is also one ambulance trust.

The process

In 2015 management and trade union leads from the Yorkshire and Humber SPF, visited the HR Directors Network in the North East. The representatives working with NHS Employers showcased what a forum could do and the value it could bring. For example, a regional SPF enables the sharing of learning and ideas on how best to attract, retain, train, develop and engage the NHS workforce.

The desire for better integrated health and care services as described in the NHS Five Year Forward View also made it increasingly important to establish a strong, regional partnership forum to ensure active engagement and collaboration in developing service change.

The first meeting of the new forum took place on 29 April 2016, and was an informal introduction used to build relationships and to enable partners to discuss and agree what the SPF was about and, importantly, what it wasn't. In the initial meetings, the forum established ways of working both formally and informally. They identified priorities and how local networks could be used to horizon scan and keep partners up to date.

The forum completed the Partnership Behaviours Tool at their first meetings and do so regularly to plan and reshape their future priorities following input from the Integrated Care System (ICS) lead. These reviews enable the forum to stay focused on key priorities and operate in a way that maximises the time of all those who attend the meetings.

The forum meets on a quarterly basis with UNISON providing use of their Newcastle office for meetings. Their membership is wide and varied. NHS Employers is a key partner, providing secretariat support for the meetings and a link to other regional SPFs and the national SPF.

In addition to HR director and trade union representatives, they are joined by a local authority link officer and HR Director, a representative from public health, Health Education England (HEE) and NHS England and NHS Improvement colleagues. This is to ensure the forum is kept informed on regional developments, including the development of the Integrated Care System (ICS) or specific updates on workforce related streams. The forum has established management and vice chairs and joint trade union chairs who meet throughout the year, working closely to plan agendas and behind the scenes to facilitate fruitful discussions and ensure the forum is productive.

Prior to regional SPF meetings, the trade union representatives have a structured pre-meeting, which enables them to share intelligence between themselves and identify any workforce issues, concerns or key points to raise in the meeting.

All members of the forum have built, and continue to build, trust and respect for one another and recognise shared interests and the desire to help NHS employers and staff deliver the best services possible.

The outcomes

The North East and North Cumbria has a range of large-scale social challenges to address, such as high unemployment and poor public health. Through the regional SPF, partners can contribute to the development of the North East and North Cumbria ICS which aims to provide improved patient services through closer integration between health and care.

To support the development of these new services, the forum is regularly updated on what is happening around the region in relation to system transformation by the Director of Workforce Transformation for the North East and North Cumbria ICS, who is also the management side chair. This ensures a co-ordinated approach to the establishment and development of new models of care and the region’s ICS, and full consideration of the possible implications and opportunities for the workforce. Trade Unions work closely with the North East and North Cumbria ICS Workforce workstream and have a place on the Great Place to Work Delivery Board, which looks at the flexibility, efficiency, standards and consistency of our HR practices and focusing on retention of staff.

Another priority area for the forum is to promote and embed a partnership approach across the North East and North Cumbria on tackling bullying in the NHS. This is in line with the SPF’s call to action, which is a ministerial priority. A subgroup was set up to take this work forward through identifying and sharing good practice. Six trusts from the North East and North Cumbria, at the request of the regional SPF, submitted practice posters to the SPF’s Creating Positive Cultures national event in November 2017. The posters show work going on in trusts in the region, linked to the call to action to embed positive workplace cultures and address bullying.

Top tips

  • Secure availability of key representatives and allow a deputy to attend in their place.
  • Regularly undertake an audit of attendance and see where the agenda needs to be focused to encourage colleagues to attend.
  • Commit to continuous improvement. The Partnership Behaviours Tool helps refine approaches and ways of working.

For further information contact:

Lisa Crichton-Jones, Director of Workforce Transformation, North East and North Cumbria ICS at

Helen Coomer, Regional Trade Union Officer, UNISON at