The Future of Public Service Quick Take: Government Partnerships & Trends

Government partnerships are increasing, and are expected to be a large part of government operations going forward. Advancing society through partnership governance was the subject of a recent academic summit on the future of public service.

What’s propelling government partnerships?

“Innovation is on the minds of everybody because of the financial constraints and the other pressures about meeting the needs of citizens,” said Robert Shick, Ph.D., a panelist at The Future of Public Service summit hosted by the Institute for Public Service at Suffolk University, and sponsored by the American Society for Public Administration, on May 31, 2018.

Quick Summary

Government partnerships are based on collaboration where governments can outsource risk, opening up a greater appetite for innovation. Today there are more new actors in government than ever, as federal contracting has grown 87 percent from 2000 to 2012, to $518 billion, with state and local contract estimates at about $2 trillion, according to Shick.

The morning panel sessions of “Advancing the Civil Society Through Partnership Governance” focused on the future of partnership governance and its evolving trends and revealed four key takeaways below.

  • Wendy Haynes, Ph.D., interim assistant provost, global engagement and senior international officer, Bridgewater State University
  • Dan Ahern, president of Clarus Group
  • Marc Holzer, Ph.D., distinguished professor, Institute for Public Service, Suffolk University
  • Peter Morrissey, senior associate, the Volcker Alliance
  • Robert Shick, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City of University of New York
  • Joshua Steinfeld, Ph.D., assistant professor, Old Dominion University
  • Frederick S. Lane, Professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York
4 Key Takeaways on Government Partnerships Trends

#1 Be mindful and intentional about government partnerships - Ahern started with the notion that many contracts are mislabeled as partnerships. When one government agency needed to leverage resources and was to issue an RFP, it came to his firm for help with, “How do we decide who to do this with and why?” He said governments need to evaluate potential partners based on:

  • What are their resources?
  • What can they contribute?
  • For how long?

The private sector will evaluate government partners similarly. The private sector is aware of government’s value, said Morrissey. That sector is doing its own “NPV calculation on why collaborating with government is important,” he said, noting that public services must assure that the partnership model is additive.

Holzer asked, “How does public service evaluate results-driven competencies?” It’s harder than it is in the private sector, he said, because outcomes don’t “sum up neatly to profit.”

Shick said government should “move beyond solving process problems,” and harvest innovative expertise and resources to address specific challenges.

#2 Accountability in government partnerships must be a primary objective from the outset - Privatization as it was known in the 1980s and 1990s relied on contracts that did not always yield the capacities expected. A prime example of this, according to Haynes, who served for more than 13 years in the Massachusetts Office of the Inspector General culminating as first assistant inspector general for megaproject oversight, was the Big Dig. The Central Artery/Tunnel Project was considered the most technologically challenging highway project up to that time, intended to reduce traffic congestion. It was conceived of in the 1980s, and completed in 2007. Congress allocated $755 million to the project in 1990, and egregious overruns and corruption on the project were notorious.

Haynes said the state lacked the ability to oversee the project, but had to proceed to keep the project funded. She said as a result -- from the “low ball estimate” and beyond -- the Commonwealth “mortgaged our grandchildren’s futures.”

In her current role, she is looking at financial relationships and management systems that handle accountability and reporting.

Holzer noted historically in government partnerships, there is a deterioration of oversight over time.

Partnerships will have life cycles, Ahern said, so accountability measures need to be created at the outset.

Morrissey noted that the city of Chicago selling parking meters to Morgan Stanley for 75 years to plug one budget hole was proving quickly to be a better deal for that company. Analytical capacity on the government side to make that decision was lacking, he intimated.

#3 Managing partnerships is a defined competency - Partnerships are harder for governments to manage than for the private sector, said Holzer. “All players wants something different,” he said. Non-profits want to deliver services, foundations want innovation and so forth. “It’s hard to manage all of those things.”

Morrissey noted that a government procurement study by the Volcker Alliance gleaned some important results, chief among them is that government partnership managers are not brought in “until it’s too late.” Decision makers in government are seeing that ability in “navigating the broader environment” is essential to the success of partnerships, and that partnership management as part of procurement “is essentially a vertical.”

Shick agreed that negotiation occurs when managing partnerships, and there is not enough people in government with these skills.

#4 Government partnerships achieve value through public private stewardship - Achieving value is not only through safeguarding taxpayer’s money, but also through the promotion of public values, argued Steinfeld. Through collective commitment, partners can determine “where the value-add is for both entities.”

Lane said that in terms of future trends, governments will move from silos to networks, be diversity-sensitive and more participatory -- measuring what works and doesn’t work. But he said, that looking backwards, people have not recognized trends. He compared the current state of government -- what he called the eviscerating of federal government capacity and its potential trickle down to the state and local levels -- to the history of American sewer pipes. “They became old, rusted and were not always maintained,” he said. The “4Es” -- economy, efficiency, effectiveness and equity -- “got lost.”

Most Memorable Quotes

“In any partnership, trust is important, but verification is also important,” Haynes said.

“Government partners have to really insist that their accountability needs are met,” said Ahern.

“Why am I worried [looking forward]? I’m concerned about if our public administrators will be able to do the kinds of things we’ve been talking about today,” said Lane.

Putting Government on a Level Playing Field with the Private Sector

“How do governments gain the trust of the business community?” Holzer asked, recommending education on the following factors:

  • People working in government are underpaid
  • Government deals with problems the private sector can’t make a profit on
  • Military provides a competitive model
  • Most people in government are out in the field, and it’s often dangerous service, such as public healthcare, teachers, road maintenance, public safety and other departments

The Bureau of Labor Statistics can provide data on public service professions, he noted.

Morrissey noted that universities present a great partner for governments because they can absorb some risk, have good accountability and are “hubs of capacities not possible in government.”

Andrea Fox is Editor of and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.