The recent political wranglings in Washington over health care, financial regulation and the stimulus package often have devolved into simplified arguments over whether bigger government can improve health, economic and social outcomes. The more practical debate might be how to make government smarter and more effective in its cooperation with corporations, nonprofits and foundations to deliver social impact.
The public-private partnership model has taken hold across several areas of the government, including the U.S. Department of Education, creating tremendous potential for progress but also presenting new management challenges.
Take President Obama’s new initiatives to spur innovation in education, beginning with a $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund. The fund will distribute grants to start or expand research-based innovative programs to help close the achievement gap and improve outcomes for students. Individual schools or school districts can apply, but it’s expected that a chunk of the investment will go to entrepreneurial organizations that are partnering with school systems to provide high-quality intervention. There also is the condition that 20 percent of the amount is matched by a private-sector partner - increasing their commitment to education reform.
The hope is that this fund will spur a new wave of innovation in the education sector, leading to a set of breakthrough ideas that will transform on a significant scale the way students learn.
Another innovative initiative at the state level is North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton’s Joining Our Businesses and Schools (JOBS) program, which aligns school curriculums with local work-force needs. Building on an early-college high school program he championed as a state senator, Mr. Dalton hopes to create high schools focused on 21st-century learning priorities such as entrepreneurship, linguistics or health care with the help and input of local companies, which can, in turn, provide internships, mentoring and additional training.
In another example, Educate to Innovate is a $260 million federal initiative that will enlist the help of corporations, nonprofits and foundations to spur improvements in American test scores in science and math and sharpen our competitive edge in the global economy. It is a series of public-private partnerships involving companies such as Sony, Discovery Communications and PNC Bank. Both the public and the private sectors have strong motivations to engage in these partnerships. Government officials realize that leveraging private-sector capabilities can lower costs and improve efficiency, while companies are increasingly engaging in corporate social responsibility as a way to improve brand image, motivate employees and provide valuable services to the broader community. Partnering with the government also can lead to long-term contracts that directly benefit the bottom line.
Looked at that way, this is a potential win-win-win for everyone — government gets a cheaper, better service than it can provide on its own; the private provider burnishes its community contributions while benefiting financially; and the end user is better served. Achieving this winning trifecta, however, requires careful management, clear accountability and transparency.
Finally, to return to a common theme in our columns, measurement of impact is key to success in any partnership. With regard to public-private partnerships in education, a clear process must be in place that clearly outlines expected outcomes, timelines and expected deliverables — clearly tying these public-private partnerships to improvements in academic achievement.
Investing in Innovation, North Carolina’s JOBS initiative and Educate to Innovate are just a few examples of new partner models with government. As the public sector increasingly becomes a partner with corporations, nonprofits and foundations, the debate over bigger versus smaller government could be supplanted by discussions about how well-managed public-private partnerships can be used to deliver higher-quality services more efficiently, leading to measurable and sustainable impact.
Aaron K. Chatterji is an assistant professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. He also is working with the North Carolina Lt. Governor’s Office on the JOBS program. Christopher Gergen is the director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative within the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University’s Terry Sanford School of Public Policy and co-author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” They can be reached at authors@life entrepreneurs.com.
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