P3 and successNot a marriage yet

If the growth of public-private partnerships in electronic service delivery (ESD) hasn’t matched expectations, there are some success stories that should help point the industry and government in the right direction.

Probably the most successful one has been Teranet Inc. of Toronto, which took over the Ontario land registry in 1991 and has saved the province $300 million while turning a tidy profit. That has the company looking at other areas in which it could work with governments.

And there are other encouraging examples, adds John Davis, president of Partnership and Procurement Inc., an Ottawa firm that promotes private-public joint ventures. However, he adds, “there’s a not a lot of other big success stories out there yet.”

Davis cites Service New Brunswick, a collaboration between CGI, a subsidiary of Bell Canada, and the provincial government as one venture that is showing positive signs. It’s expanding the range of services it offers to citizens of the province. Meanwhile Atlantic Canada Online, an initiative of the four Atlantic Provinces and Unisys, “has had a limited uptake and is not quite a commercial success yet.”

South of the border, Davis says, private-public partnerships have been more successful. “They are more into shared risk and reward.”

So what do these successful enterprises tell the private and public sectors about joint ventures? In large part, it is to be careful in identifying the areas and conditions in which they should be undertaken. “We know we can make it work,” Davis observes. “But there has to be a straightforward business case for it.” A positive business case is far more likely to happen when the venture involves the provision of government services. On the other hand, when the proposal is based mostly on ideas and visions, the odds would seem to be against it.

Just what it takes to a make success story out of an ESD initiative has been a major theme at the Lac Carling Congress over the last few years. A discussion on the business model for collaborative ESD was started at last year’s conference, and organizers hope to broaden the dialogue on that approach in the years ahead, to help both the private and public sectors understand the circumstances under which a joint venture can succeed.

The message from last year’s conference is that the private sector is approaching governments with a more pragmatic attitude about what is possible in joint ventures. This year more attention is going to the ingredients needed to reach a successful deal, including what’s required in a business deal and how the service provider gets paid.

To reinforce the notion that service delivery is among the most promising areas for private-public partnerships, take a look at the expansion plans of Teranet. Having consolidated 400 million pieces of paper into an electronic land registry for Ontario, the company is working on joint ventures with municipal governments for such tasks as collecting parking tickets and other locally provided services.

As a number of ESD practitioners have pointed out, municipal governments have tended to make the least use of joint ventures with the private sector. Yet this level of government provides many of the services that affect the daily lives of citizens and would seem to be the most ripe for the kind of approach that Teranet is making. And if it can be made to work in one community, there are many more out there that could be candidates for a similar endeavour. That may make muncipalities a more fruitful area for the private sector than a focus on the federal government; while Ottawa has the most money, it is at least as concerned with policy making as with service delivery.

Alex Binkley ( alex.binkley@sympatico.ca) is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.