P3s are Fun for Everyone!


Public-private-partnerships, AKA P3s. People talk about them a lot, and they’re often touted as the savior to our over-stretched public budgets. But what do they really mean for you? And how can you leverage the private sector in your daily professional life? Here are some ideas.

Before we dive in: Yes, companies will always be driven to increase their profits and yes, governments will always have a responsibility to represent and protect the public good. Sometimes, those two competing priorities can result in bad behavior. Beyond bad behavior, there are also plenty of examples where well-intentioned public-private-partnerships didn’t work as planned. But just like how we argued last week that you shouldn’t let potential conflicts stop you from using social media at all, suspicion of private sector motives shouldn’t stop you from collaborating with them at all to improve city services. The upsides of collaborating with the private sector are just too great to pass up, namely the potential to access the private sector’s: 1) talent and expertise 2) creative problem-solving 3) efficiency.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s define what we mean by public-private partnerships. In the traditional sense, P3s are legal structures that enable the private sector to co-finance the building and maintenance of a public system. Most often they are used in transportation infrastructure – like roads and rails – and sometimes in the deployment of other major infrastructure systems like waste management, desalination and broadband. But partnerships between the public and private sector don’t (and shouldn’t) stop there.

Here is our prediction: Public-private collaborations of the future won’t look like the public-private collaborations of the past. Instead of being a solution to over-stretched city budgets, P3s of the future will also be a solution to over-stretched city staff and citizens’ ever-increasing expectations for government services. They’ll not just fill a financing gap, but an execution gap. The potential to improve local government services is incredible.
There are already examples of these public-private collaborations of the future. Look at Waze, which partners with cities around the world to share real time data that reduces traffic congestion and supports city planning staff through its Connected Citizens Program. The City of Las Vegas released an app this year for Amazon’s Alexa that lets residents pay bills and fees, check the status of applications and permits, and get more information about city services and officials. Cities like Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia are using different methods to engage the private sector partners early in process using competitions and Requests for Information, but with no less success. In each of these examples, cities are collaborating with companies to provide better, more efficient services – not just to finance a project or program. By and large, these collaborations are allowing local government staff to focus their precious time doing the work that only government employees can do.

Here are some high-level takeaways from these examples:

Focus on idea generation. The best partnerships are ones where both parties are fully engaged from the start. Not only does it generate buy-in, but it can also sometimes open up unforeseen opportunities. For example, brainstorming between city staff in Gloucester, NJ and their local businesses led to a coordinated application for grant funding to support green infrastructure investment to address chronic flooding.

Be clear about what you want. In a recent conversation I had with Michael Nutter, former Mayor of Philadelphia, he stressed the importance of setting and managing expectations when the public sector works with the private sector. We couldn’t say it better ourselves, so check it out.

Think in terms of sprints. Taking a lesson from the tech space, first break a big challenge you’re trying to solve into bite size chunks along a timeline. That way private sector partners can be focused on discrete, near term tasks, while you stay focused on moving through the string of bureaucratic steps it takes to get anything done in government. In other words, have them chop the onions, while you focus on making the whole enchilada.

Of course, not every city, or city employee, can set up partnerships with Amazon or Waze. And even RFIs can be a long, cumbersome process. The good news is that if you’re on board with the idea of tapping into the private sector to improve local government services, there are tangible and fairly easy ways to get started.

Look at Chris Castro in Orlando. He recently hosted an Orlando Tech & Beer meetup to launch a ‘Smartest City Challenge’. The goal? To leverage their local startups, students, and businesses as a resource for generating ideas on where and how the city can invest. Similarly, Mayor Robideaux from Lafayette, LA launched a hackathon aptly titled #WillCodeForCrawfish.

How can you replicate these successes in your own communities? We recommend taking a step back and thinking about your city and region’s local economy, and the unique capabilities of your local private sector. Do you have a growing technology hub or a bustling hospitality sector? Do you have a university with a great sustainability program or a single company that employs a lot of your citizens? Brainstorm with your colleagues about how that expertise could help improve city services. Then ask your local private sector for help solving a particular problem. Organize an open brainstorming session or attend a local meetup.

We’re excited that P3s of the future won’t look like P3s of the past, and encourage every public-sector employee to consider creative ways to partner with the private sector to make cities run better, so we can arrive at that future faster. Citizens will thank you!

Elle Hempen is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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