Developing interagency protocols and service agreements

Partnership or inter-agency agreements are documents that record the agreed terms and conditions of collaboration between separate agencies and/or sectors. The term 'agreement' is sometimes used interchangeably with guidelines and Memoranda of Understanding (MOU). There can be both legally binding and non-legally binding agreements. MOUs are non-legally binding agreements. A formal contract is legally binding.

Inter-agency agreements or protocols can serve a number of purposes:

  • clarifying roles and responsibilities
  • maintaining consistency of inter-agency relationships and practices
  • explicitly stating what agencies and/or sectors have committed to
  • providing a basis for negotiation of responses to a situation or resolution of differences between agency approaches, and/or
  • providing an agreed process for resolving inter-agency differences.

Definitions

Inter-agency or partnership agreement

An inter-agency or partnership agreement is a document outlining the basis of a new relationship and the agreed objectives between partners.

Agreements can be developed at a statewide, regional or local level.

An agreement may be a broad, high-level agreement that documents the relationship between groups of agencies. For example:

  • state government and the non-government sector about their roles and responsibilities
  • local government and the non-government sector about community development activities
  • government and a consumer peak body about the interests of service users
  • peak bodies representing different interest groups identifying the boundaries of their constituencies
  • professional groups such as social workers, psychologists, welfare workers agreeing on inter-professional practices
  • universities and the non-government sector agreeing to provide learning and development pathways for community services workers
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the non-government sector or government about sustainable servicing practices to remote areas, or
  • the non-government sector and business about pro bono contributions and volunteers.

An agreement may also be a simple agreement between two agencies about specific aspects of their work. For example:

  • a homeless men's shelter having an agreement with the local integrated mental health team for responding to crisis situations involving their residents with mental health issues
  • a disability support service having an agreement with an accommodation service to access weekend respite care services for clients, or
  • a network of after-school care programs having an agreement about delivery and access of workers to a training program operated by one of the agencies.

Agreements should be contractually binding if there are consequences for partners for not complying with the agreed terms.

Protocols

A protocol is the more detailed process by which inter-agency partners will work together. Protocols document how partner agencies will interact and what each partner can reasonably expect from the other. Protocols can provide legitimacy to relationships and processes already in place but have not been formally documented.

Protocols are a practical, hands-on way to outline specific processes and procedures between service delivery agencies.

Protocols are not usually contractually binding but are used to set agreed good practice standards that parties should meet.

Agreements and protocols can occur together. A partnership agreement might contain the general aims and commitments of the partnership and the protocols outline how agencies work together.

Some examples of protocols include:

  • a women's refuge having a protocol with a specialist immigrant women's support service on how referral and ongoing support procedures will include access to interpreters for women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • an aged care provider offering community options having a protocol with local hospital social workers and community health social workers regarding the way eligibility criteria and referral processes will operate, or
  • an out-of-home care network of agencies having a protocol outlining how each agency's role will operate in the continuum of care and referral processes between agencies.

Reasons for developing service protocols and agreements

The reasons for developing service agreements and protocols are many and varied. Sometimes it is in response to issues that are having adverse effects on partners. Other times it will be to embark on a new initiative or take action on a common goal.

Agreements are most typically developed to:

  • outline strategic priorities and planned commitments
  • provide guidance around allocation of resources
  • clarify roles and responsibilities
  • signify a commitment to part of a process such as an integrated service system
  • respond to new legislation or other compliance requirements, or
  • establish the principles and agreements for co-location.

Protocols are most typically developed to:

  • better co-ordinate local service delivery
  • share information about service users across organisational and professional boundaries
  • obtain priority access to services for clients in crisis or where high-risk circumstances exist
  • outline specific management and service arrangements for co-location, or
  • manage case management and coordination responsibilities for clients with multiple and complex needs where several agencies are involved. (Case management protocols cover the roles and responsibilities of the various agencies in client eligibility, access and referral processes, preliminary and ongoing assessment, delivery of care and support, ongoing care and support and exit planning.)

Formats for interagency agreements and protocols

If your agency is drafting an agreement or protocol, these documents usually cover a standard format. The following formats are provided as a guide to assist in the development process.

An agreement format covers principles for the agreement.

The types of principles that might be found in an agreement include a commitment to:

  • equity
  • diversity
  • interconnectedness
  • democratic decision making processes
  • open communication
  • co-operation
  • consistency of process
  • efficiency of processes
  • focus on client outcomes and quality of life outcomes
  • transparency and accountability, and
  • keeping stakeholders informed
  • parties involved and their roles
  • desired outcomes
  • achievement of desired outcomes or how the partnership agreement will be enacted (such as activities to be undertaken or procedures to be followed)
  • review processes and time frames
  • life of partnership agreement
  • status of the agreement (whether it is legally binding or not)
  • any terms the parties agree to abide by and any consequences for breaching the agreement
  • signatories and date.

An inter-agency protocol format covers:

  • background/ introduction
  • purpose of the protocol, including aims and objectives
  • parties to the protocol
  • the protocol's perceived benefits
  • principles that inform the protocol, such as committing to working together and open communication
  • the legal background or other important contextual information about compliance requirements
  • a conceptual framework or map which provides a whole of system diagram outlining the agencies involved in the protocol
  • participating agencies' roles and responsibilities
  • any structures or existing networks that have a role and what that role is
  • a set of procedures that provide practical guidance on how the protocol will be implemented
  • arrangements for monitoring and reviewing the use of the protocol and responding to any breaches or grievances
  • complaints procedures
  • attachments, including forms, legislation, check lists, flow charts and a glossary of terms.

Steps for developing protocols

There are some generic steps which can assist in developing inter-agency service agreements and protocols.

  1. Identify the need for and purpose for establishing a protocol.
  2. Check if there are existing protocols that are relevant or could be adapted and used.
  3. Identify who should be involved (government, non-government, and community players).
  4. Contact potential inter-agency participants and gain preliminary support for the proposal.
  5. Organise an initial inter-agency meeting to discuss:
    • why a protocol is needed
    • issues the protocol is trying to address
    • purpose of the protocol
    • who is involved
    • issues or barriers to protocol development.
  6. Establish a shared commitment to working together to develop the protocol.
  7. Develop a process such a working group with cross-agency representation to develop the protocol.
  8. Develop the draft protocol document for circulation and feedback.
  9. Finalise the protocol and distribute.
  10. Develop a working/steering group to oversee and support the process of implementation of the protocol including briefings and training to staff, staged implementation processes, mechanism for early detection of any problems, any addi-tional resources/other supports required.
  11. Implement the protocol.
  12. Establish a mechanism for regular monitoring and review the protocol.
  13. Revise the protocol accordingly.

Managing inter-agency differences

When implementing agreements and protocols it is inevitable that tensions will occasionally arise. This can be due to:

  • a lack of clarity about roles
  • professional and organisational philosophies
  • different expectations about priorities and ways of working
  • perceived power differences between partners
  • communication failures, and
  • varying degrees of commitment to the agreement or protocol.

The early recognition of problems and a shared commitment across agencies to deal with the problem are keys to resolving differences. Solving issues within the inter-agency group is the preferred approach. Only in extreme circumstances would the assistance of external mediators be sought.

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