Public–Private Partnerships: Public Accountability

Public–private partnerships (PPPs or P3) are growing in popularity as a governing model for delivery of public goods and services. In recent years, the state of California for instance has partnered with the private sector to finance, design, construct, operate, and maintain two state infrastructure projects—the Presidio Parkway transportation project in San Francisco and the new courthouse in Long Beach. Both the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) entered into P3s for these projects in order to achieve benefits that they might not have obtained under a more traditional procurement approach (such as design-bid-build).  PPPS potential benefits include greater price and schedule certainty and the transfer of various project risks to a private partner.

PPPs have existed since the Roman Empire, but their expansion into traditional public projects today raises serious questions about public accountability. In a series of articles we plan on examining public accountability and its application to government and private firms involved in PPPs.

Part One-The Model:

Public–private partnerships (PPPs) increasingly have become the default solution to government problems and needs, most recently for infrastructure, and they are embraced by a wide range of constituencies, across political parties, and throughout the world. This trend may accelerate as governments experience fiscal deficits and look for alternative ways to finance and deliver government services. The rationale for creating such arrangements includes both ideological and pragmatic perspectives.

Ideologically, proponents argue that the private sector is superior to the public sector in producing and delivering many goods and services.

Pragmatically, government leaders see PPPs as a way of bringing in the special technical expertise, funding, innovation, or management know-how from the private sector to address complex public policy problems. The expanding domain of goods and services provided by PPPs includes private toll roads; schools, hospitals, security services, wastewater treatment, and emergency response.

There are many challenging technical and structural aspects to creating successful PPPs that have been addressed by other authors (see, e.g., Grimsey and Lewis 2004; Hodge and Greve 2005; Yescombe 2007). However, with the increased use of PPPs, the issue of public accountability has become one of the more important of policy questions raised (see, e.g., Guttman 2000; Sclar 2000). The purpose of upcoming articles is to provide a framework to assist public managers in effectively exercising accountability with PPPs. We will begin with a discussion of the nature of PPPs and the traditional concept of public accountability. Second, we focus on the unique characteristics of inter-organizational relationships that are pertinent to the exercise of accountability in PPPs. Finally, we shall offer a framework to analyze PPP accountability issues along several important dimensions that shape the relationships forged in public–private partnerships.

Next Time: What Public–Private Partnerships Are and What They Are Not