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Grab a Private-Sector Partner

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John Welzenbach

Public/private partnerships have long served as viable avenues to achieve tangible results for state and local taxpayers. As we head further into the 21st century, technology will play a bigger role in making public/private initiatives work.

iv class="article-quote2">

John Welzenbach

Public/private partnerships have long served as viable avenues to achieve tangible results for state and local taxpayers. As we head further into the 21st century, technology will play a bigger role in making public/private initiatives work.

Access to technology is often the main objective of some of the most innovative public/private- partnership efforts. Take South Carolina, for example.

“Like many other states, we work with a private portal vendor in having our services available through a business-to-consumer portal on the Web,” says South Carolina CIO Jim Bryant. “Anybody can enter through the portal and go, say, straight to the Department of Natural Resources and buy hunting or fishing licenses. The portal vendor, NIC, represents me and the state of South Carolina in all of our e-government initiatives.”

The Palmetto State also has a public/private effort to obtain network infrastructure. “We in South Carolina have a broadband network — perhaps the most robust in the nation — that we’ve outsourced to Spirit and AT&T. Our working relationship with these companies is very close,” Bryant says.

Some states partner with retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Jiffy Lube, to give citizens a convenient option for buying a sporting license or registering their car when they shop at those stores.

“If there’s an opportunity for us to partner with a private-sector entity — rather than trying to recreate the wheel — it only makes sense,” says Nebraska CIO Brenda Decker. She says the state’s private partners “are in the business of actually providing the technology that we need in order to more effectively deliver services to our constituents.”

Many factors drive the vital need for public/ private partnerships in advanced technology — and the parameters upon which they’re established.

“Frequently, states have provisions saying they have to use ‘proven’ technologies,” says Rick Norment, executive director of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships in Washington. “But since technology changes so rapidly, by the time it’s ‘proven’ to be effective and useful, it’s also out of date. So a public/private partnership sometimes provides the public sector an opportunity to access and use more-advanced technologies than their own procurement system might allow.”

There’s also an essential element of risk that a private entity can help a government entity overcome. “You don’t want government agencies going out and investing big chunks of money on something that just might not work,” Norment says. The risks should be shared or completely assumed by the private sector.

“The private sector will take a risk on a new technology with the hope that it will get a significant return on its investment. That’s where the public sector can benefit enormously from a public/private partnership.”

Good food for thought from a keen observer of public/private partnerships.

Forging Successful Partnerships

The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships delineates the keys to successful public/private partnerships, large or small:

  • Political leadership: Are there statutes in place and political leaders — the governor, mayor or other highly placed officials — who support the idea behind the public/private partnership?
  • Public-sector involvement: You don’t simply sign a contract and walk away. Set performance standards and enforce them.
  • A well thought-out plan: The contract must be performance-oriented rather than design-oriented. Don’t tell the private sector how to build the technological wonder; just specify the functionality it must provide.
  • Dedicated income stream: The private-sector entity has to have a regular conduit to be able to collect its money from the venture, such as a fee basis for a Web-portal-transaction arrangement.
  • Communication with stakeholders: Establish and maintain clear communication with all who are affected by the public/private venture.
  • The right partner: Choose a partner based on competence, financial wherewithal and, especially, proven technical experience.

Jim Shanks is executive vice president and former CIO of CDW.

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Mar 27 2008

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