Public-Private Partnerships: Some Considerations

January 20, 2015

Todd Piett

There has been a lot of buzz lately around public-private partnerships (PPP). Forums have questions like “we’re considering a public-private partnership, what lessons can you share to help us?” Sometimes these questions are based on a misconstrued perception that a public-private partnership is some form of magical entity or process. The truth is that most agencies are already involved in a number of public-private partnerships, and it’s really more of a question of how effective the partnering aspect of the relationship is and the goals of the partnership. Further, the business model providing the framework of the partnership has a huge impact on the collaborative nature of the relationship(s).

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers provides a great framework for thinking about PPPs in their 2006 paper, “Keys to Collaboration: Building Effective Public-Private Partnerships” ( ). Several useful definitions of a PPP are put forth in that document. The Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships defines a public-private partnership as “a cooperative venture between the public and private sectors, built on the expertise of each partner, that best meets clearly define public needs through the appropriate allocation of resources, risks and rewards.” An alternate definition for Wendell C. Lawther’s 2002 report, Contracting for the 21st Century: A Partnership Model, further defines PPPs as: “Relationships among government agencies and private or nonprofit contractors that should be formed when dealing with services or products of highest complexity. In comparison to traditional contractor- customer relationships, they require radical changes in the roles played by all partners.” Wendell’s report emphasizes that the complexity of a project requires closer collaboration than a traditional vendor-customer relationship.

By their very nature, most public safety projects entail collaboration amongst many different parties to be effective. Consider the number of agencies touched by a CAD migration project. Similarly, deployment of our Panic Button solution, while not technically complex, involves 9-1-1, responder agencies, and school officials working on joint procedures across multiple levels. The highest impact technology changes, not necessarily just the most complex technologies, often drive the most process change and improvement and thus the need for close collaboration between those deploying the technology and those using it.

The NASCIO report details different types of contractual agreements that define partnerships. Contracts are clearly a necessary component of any partnership, but perhaps the most important insight of the report is:

Collaborative partnerships are non-legal working relationships that often occur between the public and private sectors to meet a common objective or goal. Primarily goodwill gestures, collaborative partnerships are often used to provide knowledge exchange or collective leverage resources for a specified goal. – NASCIO, “Keys to Collaboration: Building Effective Public-Private Partnerships”, 2006.

Collaboration, not just a contract, is the key to any form of public safety oriented partnership. A level of trust must exist between all parties that there is a common objective or goal.

Most PPP definitions and models focus on the implementation of a solution to a well-defined complex project. In fact, the Canadian Council definition above specifically highlights a project that “meets clearly define public needs”. A different type of public-private partnership that is often overlooked is joint product development. From “hack-a-thons” to white board sessions, these are far less about the successful implementation of a specific project as taking a completely new view of a challenge and “white boarding” what is possible. For Rave, our product development sessions during our annual customer conferences have resulted in some amazing innovations that neither my company nor the attendees even conceptualized before coming. These type of open brainstorming sessions where there the only agenda is breaking the old way of doing business are empowering for all involved and, I believe, are a model of what is possible in a true PPP.

Interestingly, a technology evolution and the resulting changes to contracting approaches has actually transformed the nature of many vendor-customer relationships into collaborations regardless of the project complexity. Traditional software license models created a natural us vs them mentality. The client negotiates what is to be delivered, purchases based on that expectation, pays and then hopes that they get what they expected. The large up-front cost locks the client into the vendor for a “cycle” regardless of how happy they are with the solution. Software-as-a-Service models are dependent on an on-going relationship. Many first year contracts actually cost the vendor much more than they bring in. The vendor depends on a happy client continuing the service for their very viability.

As you look at any project or joint product development effort, regardless of the complexity, consider how you can make the relationship collaborative. A public safety agency understands their unique requirements and business processes, while a vendor often brings to the table unique technical skill, resources and a vantage point across many clients. From evaluating the people you will deal with and their vision of success, to the technology fit, to the contracting model, each aspect of your relationship plays a role in determining the success of the project. Done correctly, a PPP can truly be a 1 plus 1 equals 3 situation.

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