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Power is for all. It is not dirty and corrupt, and though it’s sticky, it is not stuck. If we don’t have it, there are ways to get it, and if someone has too much of it, we can take it off them. That was the empowering message from Harvard’s Prof Julie Battilana in the keynote address that kicked off the Social Outcomes Conference 2022.

Yet for some, no matter how earnest your exertions, your fate is determined by your circumstances. You are, quite literally, powerless to do anything about it. The “power for all” message is inspiring, but cuts against “structural” views of power like this. “Power for all” appeals to our sense of individual agency and industry, but if our efforts come to nothing, all we are left with is an even greater feeling of powerlessness.

The good news is that we have already invented a way to overcome such desperate fatalism: democratic government. We have centuries of social movements to thank for that, and the brave sacrifices of those who joined them. In many places, we can observe a historical arc of anti-monarchist revolutions, suffragists and suffragettes, and anti-colonial and civil rights movements, that helps to explain how many governments became reasonably pluralistic. They can stand up for the historically weak. And rather than needing to grapple power from the hands of others, they are already in the position to make change.

But governments exhibit an ever-increasing preference to exercise their power by proxy, through partners in the private sector and civil society. If you are someone who cares about such partnerships, and believes they are important, you should be thinking about their power dynamics. That is why we are going to return to the issue of power at this year’s Social Outcomes Conference.

Wicked issues like climate change, social marginalisation, economic inequality and poor wellbeing affect those with least power the most. And they are not going to be tackled by any one sector working in isolation. The private sector may be best place to find the technologies that will help us reach net zero, but it is governments that will provide the incentives. Non-profit organisations may be pushing for social change but only governments have the reach and power to spread the benefits widely.

Yet our habit is to ignore power completely in cross-sector partnerships. Much thinking and practice applies a market mindset: government has the cash, the company has the know-how, and so a trade occurs. As Prof Pepper Culpepper argued in response to Julie Battilana’s talk, economists who study markets tend not to worry too much about power. They are concerned with how individual agents make choices. Yet power is not evenly distributed in markets, and it “redounds to those with the most resources”.

Governments have a lot of resources, and have public interest at heart, so if more money equals more power, perhaps we are in a good place? There are three issues with this simplistic take. The first is what scholars call the “democratic deficit” – the fact that governments are not as responsive to the needs and preferences of citizens as they ought to be, harming their legitimacy and the trust we place in them. The second is that companies have resources too, and are prepared to spend them influencing governments to further their own market interests rather than the public good. The third is that many governments hoard the power they hold in a partnership, when they should be giving it away.

We are wrong to assume that power is always well balanced in cross-sector partnerships. Sometimes this may be the case, but only because governments often choose to partner with external organisations who have power already. Organisations that are weaker are faced with an uncomfortable choice: stay on the outside and oppose government, or partner with government and risk compromising their mission. Some communities are so weak and un-organised that they do not even realise how much the cards are stacked against them. Celebrated Brazilian teacher Paolo Freire coined the term “consciousness raising” to describe how such citizens first need to be made aware of how social structures have determined their fate, before those structures can be challenged. It is largely due to his pioneering work that we have the now very contemporary concept of being “woke”.

Research at the GO Lab and by others worldwide is uncovering the risks of ignoring power in partnerships, and also uncovering some promising new solutions. If you want to learn more – or if you have some pioneering practice to share – we look forward to seeing you at the Social Outcomes Conference 2023.