Down To Business: Public-Private Partnerships, The Good And The Bad

Collaboration on big IT issues and projects is one thing; companies feeding at the government trough is another.
Public-private partnerships, covering everything from toll roads to sports stadiums, are all the rage. The idea is to combine government money or influence with business know-how to produce better, more cost-effective products, services, and other outcomes. The movement even rates its own acronym (PPP) and an interest group or two, including the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships.

InformationWeek is an advocate of government-private sector collaboration on certain kinds of big IT endeavors. With regard to national cybersecurity, for instance, our recent cover story calls for federal agencies and businesses to share more information on threats and best practices, pool their resources to defend against attacks on critical IT infrastructure and other facilities, and collaborate more in real time as threats occur. No-brainer.

And at the request of federal CIO Vivek Kundra, InformationWeek is leading a meeting at the White House on May 4 that will include Kundra, several of his top agency CIOs, and several top private-sector CIOs. Their aim is to share best practices and strategies and look ahead to what's next in IT. Then, at the opening session of our Government IT Leadership Forum on May 5, Kundra and three of the corporate CIOs will take the stage to talk about some of the big takeaways from the previous day's White House discussion.

Government decision-makers, in IT and other fields, stand to learn plenty from their private-sector peers about delivering value cost effectively. One step in the right direction is ExpertNet, an online tool outlined by the White House in December that will let government officials pose questions to the public on a variety of subjects, from education to innovation, and gather answers from people with (hopefully) deep expertise. After an initial public comments stage, ExpertNet is now under development.

But let's not get carried away with the prospect of institutionalized public-private partnerships solving the planet's problems. Getting commercial leaders and doers and thinkers to help with government mandates is one thing; inviting commercial enterprises to feed at the government trough is another. At their worst, public-private partnerships are little more than special interest aid programs for speculative ventures--taxpayer subsidies to produce wind turbines or raise alpacas when there's little market to do so.

Such partnerships may fit someone's well intentioned vision of what's "good" for the country long term, but they mostly benefit the trough feeders and their lobbyists. For example, 34 CEOs of solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and biofuel energy companies wrote to Congress recently urging continued support for the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program "to preserve billions of dollars of private sector investments that will build the nation's domestic clean energy infrastructure." Without the billions of dollars worth of loan guarantees, we're told, their companies "will be unable to begin construction of major commercial renewable energy projects." So how are they viable commercial entities?

Whether you're for or against government subsidies in areas such as broadband telecommunications and electronic health records, at least those underlying technologies are established and the feds aren't picking winners and losers. And as a principle, public-private collaboration makes good sense. But the extent of that collaboration needs to be watched closely.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief, InformationWeek
[email protected]

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