Parenting NI and Family Mediation Northern Ireland - working together to best support service users

This case study outlines the process undertaken by two organisations that were working collaboratively on an informal basis to develop a more strategic collaborative commitment to best support their service users.

The collaborative project

Both organisations work with parents and families going through times of difficulty. They share the same ethos and value base and have always sign posted each other’s services on an informal basis. The chief executives in both organisations have known each other for a number of years, and Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive of Parenting NI, is chair of FMNI’s board and has an excellent understanding of FMNI and the work that it does. The relationship between the two organisations is very positive.

Both organisations recognised that their clients came to them in times of need and were often unsure of which organisation they should go to for support. In many cases these individuals contacted or were directed to the wrong organisation and would find it difficult to access the most appropriate service.

While staff from both organisations sign posted each other when they realised that the other organisation could provide additional or more appropriate support to particular clients, there was no way to measure if clients then contacted the other organisation once advised of its services. Both organisations came to the view that if they worked collaboratively they could better support people to access the right services and put in place a more formal structure to refer people to these services.

“We have the same ethos and value base but are we really making the best of the services we are delivering to parents? How could we make it easier for them to access the services?”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI


Once a decision was taken to work collaboratively, the chief executives of both organisations and the Director of the Parenting NI helpline met to discuss how best to establish the partnership, what form it should take and how it could cross-refer clients. As they examined this proposal further and began to develop an action plan, there was recognition of a need for a project co-ordinator to facilitate and support the joint project. However external resources were needed for this. A funding application was put into Building Change Trust, which was unsuccessful. Staff at Building Change Trust made the organisations aware that they could apply again for funding and also made them aware of CollaborationNI and the support they could receive there.

“Bill Osborne from the Building Change Trust told us that we could put in another application but in the meantime he told me to contact CollaborationNI.”
Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive, Parenting NI

While staff were disappointed that they did not secure the funding, they continued to develop the joint project and contacted CollaborationNI for support. The two chief executives met with the Programme Co-ordinator and Legal Adviser from CollaborationNI who outlined the range of support that could be offered. Part of the support provided included expert facilitation sessions which helped the organisations think through the different options of collaboration and which option suited their purpose best. After the first session a decision was made to establish a joint project and the following sessions explored difficult issues such as staff buy in, lack of funding, data protection, a name for the project, and how it should be advertised. 

“Our experience with the facilitator was very helpful; he was able to make suggestions, summarise, challenge and pull things together”
Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive, Parenting NI

This process enabled the organisations to begin to examine the way they would make referrals to each other. The organisations worked hard to keep the referral form simple and with confidentiality in mind only basic contact details would be given. The aim of the form is also to measure the number of clients that take up these referrals. This has now been developed and was implemented in August 2012.

“We worked hard to keep the form and process simple. This will show if they engaged with the other organisation and will show us if this collaboration and form referral system has been a success or a waste of time.”
 Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

The next stage was putting in place a collaboration agreement. Both chief executives were greatly involved in this process and additional support was provided by the Legal Adviser from CollaborationNI. CollaborationNI also provided the support and guidance on data protection. Both organisations were mindful of the need to comply with data protection when passing personal information to the other through the new referral system.  It was agreed that the only client information to be put on the referral form was the name of the client and their contact telephone number.

“Confidentially rules won’t be breached.  Information is passed and then the other organisation makes contact.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

Both organisations have found the process of establishing their partnership exciting. They acknowledge however that there are still things to do and challenges to overcome.

“The process is exciting, but it has been dulled by not getting the funding and we still have work ahead.”
Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive, Parenting NI

Next steps

As a joint referral system has been developed, contact between staff will be established and it will be part of the responsibilities of staff from both organisations to cross refer to the other organisation. A ‘meet and greet’ session has been organised for August 2012 so that staff can discuss each other’s roles, their responsibilities and how the new referral system will work.

“Staff will be putting faces to names and will hear what each of us does. The helpline staff know who I am but this way they will get to see who is in the room with clients and who is making the referrals and vice versa.”
 Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

Informal training will also be provided to staff so there is a uniformed approach with regard to referring clients.

“Cross fertilisation of training is being developed and the same systems will be put in place in both organisations.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

Once the training has been completed the new referral system will be implemented.  A six month pilot of the project will take place starting in September 2012. Each referral form will have a code so that the organisations can track if someone they have referred has taken up additional support with the other organisation. This data will be analysed to see if the cross referral system has been successful. If so, then both organisations hope to roll out this new referral system to other potential partners who refer clients to them in the hope of streamlining and measuring these too.


While the advantages of this partnership have been clearly acknowledged by the two organisations they also outlined what their challenges have been to date and what challenges lie ahead.

One of the main challenges is the lack of resources to finance the project. A proposal was initially submitted to Building Change Trust in March 2011 to fund a part time co-ordinator that would work across both organisations to develop working protocols. At the time the application was not successful. Building Change Trust however encouraged the partnership to get in contact with CollaborationNI for additional support and then to resubmit an application for funding in 2012. The partnership is waiting to hear if it has been successful, but they have been given positive feedback on the application. This has not hindered the partnership in terms of development however the key players involved believe that the process would be further along had the funding been secured. The work that would have been allocated to the co-ordinator is now taking up the time of staff within both organisations.

“This puts pressure on employees who already have a lot to do. A co-ordinator or funding to extend the hours of a current member of staff would make a huge difference.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

Both chief executives believe that one of the biggest challenges for the partnership is bringing staff on board. So far both chief executives and the Parenting NI helpline Director have been involved in this process and while staff have been informed of the joint project to date, they have not been involved. 

“Management has ideas and have worked hard on this, but we need to bring staff along with us. People by their nature are resistant to change and we don’t want them to think that this is another thing they have to do and not see the benefit.”
Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive, Parenting NI

One further challenge for FMNI is that the family mediators are self-employed and work across Northern Ireland therefore it is harder for the chief executive to gather staff together and outline the benefits of the joint project. A lot of effort has been invested to keep the mediators informed and to explain the implications for them as a result of the joint project. This has been very time consuming and will continue to be so as the project develops and is monitored. In Parenting NI all staff are in one location and meetings and information sharing is easier.

“My staff are sessional workers. They work all over Northern Ireland so it is hard for me to meet and discuss this with them. This is a challenge.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

There may also be challenges with promoting the new partnership. Currently the joint referral project does not have a name. This has to be agreed before the next partnership meeting in August 2012. The partnership want to develop a leaflet which will outline the project and the benefits to clients, however there is the issue of where the funding comes from to meet the cost of developing and producing the leaflet.

“What we are struggling with is getting time and funding to develop a leaflet.  We haven’t thought of a name for the project yet, this is a priority.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

In addition, Parenting NI has just rebranded from Parents Advice Centre. There is concern that publishing information on the new project could lead to confusion with the different identities of two organisations.

“Both are stand-alone organisations which do completely separate things, but with the same client group. This needs to be kept clear.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

Another potential challenge is how the six month pilot will be evaluated and who will undertake this. As no funding has yet been secured it will be the role of staff members to collate and evaluate data from the pilot scheme, adding more to their current workload.

Support received

This joint project has received a range of support from CollaborationNI. The organisations had several meetings with the CollaborationNI team to discuss different types of collaborations and which would suit their purpose best. As part of this they had expert facilitation sessions to assist them with decision making and overcoming challenges and issues. These sessions took place over a short time which kept the momentum going. Feedback was given to the session participants immediately, which they saw as a great benefit as it helped them reflect on the sessions and the decisions that were taken before the next sessions. Work plans were also agreed in these sessions and each participant was allocated tasks.

“Richard O’Rawe (Expert Facilitator) got us together and guided us on what we needed to do and what we had done. We knew what we wanted to do, but it was great having that order and it kept us energised.”
Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive, Parenting NI

Legal support was also given by the CollaborationNI team, providing assistance with the preparation of the partnership’s collaboration agreement. Guidance was also given with regard to data protection.

“Andrew Talbot (CollaborationNI Legal Adviser) helped with the collaboration agreement; he helped make amendments, which was great.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

What went well?

One of the most positive things about this partnership is that the organisations already had a great working relationship with both chief executives working with each other on other partnerships such as the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division (CMED). Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive of Parenting NI, is also chair of FMNI’s board. This relationship was further cemented by the realisation that by working in partnership the organisations would be able to help clients reach the services they need quicker.

“I have been in post for three years and have a great relationship with Pip who was first a member of the board of FMNI and is now chair. Our partnership wasn’t a light bulb moment, more an organic natural progression and bonding of the organisations via the personalities involved.”
 Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

Both feel that their partnership is one of equals and that no one organisation has control over the project. In addition, even though both organisations were disheartened not to have been successful in securing funding for the joint project, they have continued to establish it and will run a pilot in August 2012 to measure its success.


Joan Davis, Director of FMNI, advises that if a relationship has already been established between potential partnering organisations, that this should be built upon at the start of any collaborative process to build communication and trust. 

“If two people in the organisations know each other then you could start with them first because they could build on their relationship.”
Joan Davis, Director, FMNI

Both chief executives commented on having the support of an expert facilitator to help make decisions and to play the role of devil’s advocate.

“Though we are very keen on the project, we might have given up. I would advise anyone going through a collaboration process to get in touch with CollaborationNI.”
Pip Jaffa, Chief Executive, Parenting NI

Every effort is made to ensure that the contents of this document are accurate, but the advice given should not be relied on as a definitive legal statement.

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