Despite dire predictions for the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on public-private partnerships (P3), a record number of P3 projects entered the pipeline in 2020. The enduring appeal of the P3 model is clear - ideally, government agencies benefit greatly from
private-sector expertise while businesses tap into new streams of revenue. For instance, Code Corporation was pressed by a medical tech manufacturer to develop a data capture device that paired with their products and met federal levels for security and interoperability through data encryption. But it’s no secret that P3 projects come with challenges, and while some succeed, others blow past projected budgets and timelines or otherwise fail to meet stated objectives.
Both successes and the failures offer invaluable lessons, including insights that contradict received wisdom about P3 initiatives. In a recent Harvard Business Review study, P3 project leaders noted that strict focus on the terms of a contract could start things off on the wrong foot between parties and foster an adversarial relationship throughout an engagement. Interviewees also observed that an emphasis on meeting project milestones can take precedence over monitoring the health of the working relationship itself, resulting in poor outcomes.
Ultimately, the study found that keeping P3 efforts on track had little to do with enforcing compliance with contractual obligations. Instead, success is more commonly correlated with ongoing efforts to maintain a strong and productive relationship between parties engaged in the project. Industry research aligns around several foundational principles for building and sustaining a partnership that fully delivers on the goals of a P3 initiative:
Acknowledging that unspoken interests matter.
Contracts for a P3 project may document official project objectives, but the unspoken interests that each partner brings to the table are also critical in shaping outcomes. A government agency’s concern about public opinion, for example, might drive decisions throughout an engagement, even if it isn’t stated in legal documents. For a private-sector organization, the desire to generate a profit or win future projects may not be spelled out, but these goals influence the project and the partnership.
Moving quickly from blame to shared responsibility.
It may sound unorthodox for parties in a P3 arrangement to discuss interests other than contractual goals, but reconciling public-sector and private-sector agendas can be a key factor in project success. Acknowledging motivations reduces mistrust, and effective P3 project leaders have discovered that when an issue arises, this mutual understanding can help partners move more quickly from blame to a shared sense of responsibility for addressing the problem at hand. Scheduling regular "health check" meetings between partners offers a built-in mechanism for communicating interests and concerns throughout the project.
Creating a shared project vision.
Straightforward communication about agendas also helps to establish a unified vision for the project - one that takes the goals and
objectives of both parties into consideration. In P3 initiatives, gaining community buy-in can also be an essential part of this process, often requiring consensus-building and strong political skills.
However, establishing a unified vision can yield tremendous, mutually beneficial outcomes for everyone. For instance, channel partners were instrumental in Code Corporation’s CR2700 Barcode Readers receiving FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) certification in early 2021. While Code performed the heavy-lifting (programming, validating, and testing), channel partners proved invaluable. The partners had nurtured long-standing relationships with the target audience, giving them unique insight into an intricate sales landscape that uninitiated parties would struggle to navigate. Thus, unification meant efforts were laser-focused, project development was streamlined, and costs were realistic. That last component was crucial for the barcode scanner’s intended customers, such as those at VA hospitals, because they are stewards of public funds. This responsibility also means they are held to high standards of accountability and transparency.
Establishing a clear decision-making framework.
In a complex project with multiple players, challenges continually arise, along with different viewpoints on handling them. By establishing a transparent process for making and implementing decisions at the outset, P3 partners have guidelines for addressing issues and moving forward more quickly, with less friction.
Agreeing on how the inevitable road bumps will be dealt with beforehand also helps to create a sense of safety and ease in the working relationship. In the most successful P3 partnerships, team members feel comfortable acknowledging mistakes or failures as they occur and move quickly to correct them.
Keeping stakeholders invested in the process.
By encouraging straightforward communication and establishing a clear decision-making framework at the beginning of a project, partners establish a strong foundation for project success. But P3 failures often occur when parties don’t continue to stay involved and invested in the process. To ensure that key participants are staying up to speed on changing technical, political and financial issues, both sides of the partnership need to make sure that information is diligently shared with every team member.
Committing beyond the terms of the contract.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, good partnerships require commitment that extends beyond the terms of a P3 contract. Documentation can establish key parameters - roles, responsibilities, timelines and projected costs - but it can’t capture the intangible elements that lead to desired outcomes. In a successful partnership, each entity recognizes the larger benefits of the relationship and becomes as committed to the other party’s goals as they are to their own.