Time for a new national office on private-public partnerships

Time for a new national office on private-public partnerships

This op-ed was featured in The Washington Post as part of their collection of ideas that could mitigate the impact of COVID-19. You can read the full article here.

By Tom Freedman

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed a huge opportunity for improving our government. That’s because a wonky policy tool — public-private partnerships — has become much more important during the pandemic. The problem, however, is that these are being deployed in an ad hoc, uncoordinated manner, with too little thought given to how they fit the needs of our democratic society. What’s missing is an effective structure for how we could best use the promise of these partnerships in a modern, new government.

To fill this hole, the government should create an office of public-private partnerships that can field a diverse array of potential commitments; share them throughout the federal, state and local governments; and ensure transparency.

What might some of the ground rules of this office be? First, it’s not good for a democracy to let decisions of interest to the public be made in secret by privately interested forces. The “public” part of public-private partnerships should be paramount. Public partnerships should have the imprimatur of the whole community and fit within overall national, state and local goals. A good partnership is one that doesn’t replace democratic decision-making but acts under its guidance and is transparent to all.

Second, we can do better than the ad hoc way most states and the federal government put together partnerships. That approach misses opportunities and leads to overlaps of effort when we can least afford it. The staff of a national office should be skilled at building, coordinating and evaluating partnerships.

Right now, if you can help make masks, testing kits or deliver food, you are left to your own devices to find what agency partner to reach out to. And more fundamentally, you must try and figure out what problem you can help solve, and how to best help solve it. Often on your own.

This doesn’t have to be the case. A new national office could build relationships with private and nonprofit leaders and set guidelines to avoid self-dealing. That way, government will be ready when a problem arises so partnerships can be quickly discussed and activated.

Tom Freedman was senior adviser to President Bill Clinton. He advises on the creation of public-private partnerships as president of the Washington-based firm Freedman Consulting.