By Alex Binkley

There’s little doubt these days that the reality of private-public partnerships in Electronic Service Delivery, or ESD, has come up short of expectations. Still, some of those steeped in P3 – a hot topic at last year’s Lac Carling Congress – argue that the lessons learned by ESD practitioners who had hoped for major joint ventures with governments could still pay off.

Gary Cameron, for one, argues that the private sector must ensure that a partnership with a government agency or department is supoported by senior levels of management.

“You have to have executive involvement and ownership in the project,” says Cameron, vice-president, federal government, for Bell Nexxia. “You have to drive the spirit of partnership from the top.”

Top-down commitment and backing is especially crucial when the project involves a number of government departments, he adds. Power plays among and within departments mean that authority for a project has to rest with a department or agency that can keep it moving ahead.

Along similar lines, Bob Morine, vice-president and general manager, public sector, for IBM Canada, calls for executive involvement up to the deputy or ministerial level. Morine also thinks governments need to be encouraged to consider how an ESD partnership can transform the way they conduct their business operations. “We should come at these projects from the perspective of what does the citizen want.”

On another front – access routes – Morine argues that the private sector should not regard the Internet as the solution to all of government’s communications needs. “About 20 to 25 per cent of the public want to go to a government centre where they can do a number of tasks. Others want a call centre, an information kiosk or to be able to fax in information. They want all sorts of channels.”

And, adds Morine, the private sector needs to be realistic about the status of ESD at the political level. “This is not a political issue, so don’t expect it to attract attention from the cabinet. We have to get on with it. Customers are demanding it.”

Tony Baldock, a former senior executive with Unisys who is now a consultant in the area, says it’s important to ensure that the private and public partners understand how each other works. “Both sides have to be flexible, and procurement has to be clearly defined while respecting international trade commitments.”

The private sector should appreciate that government departments operate under a mix of policies and laws that restrict their ability to change projects as they advance, Baldock says. At the same time, the private sector should push government departments to work together on ESD – rather than independently.

The private sector also has to be sensitive to public concerns about individual privacy when personal information is transmitted electronically, Baldock notes. Citizens don’t want the details of their medical records, driver’s license and tax information to become public, and an aging population that didn’t grow up with computers and the Internet can be expected to be hesitant about many features of e-government. “We have to educate and show the public how everything is protected.”

As a first principle, Cameron recommends that any joint venture start with a clear definition of the business relationship between the public and private partners. “Then choose the appropriate technology; don’t let the technology drive the business. Get all the users to agree beforehand on what the ESD requirements are….(Private companies should) get government to select its needs and articulate them.”

At the same time, Cameron adds, private partners have to be clear on what they expect to get out of any deal. “Be definite about what you want to achieve. You have to figure out the outcome you are aiming for.”

Cameron also suggests that any project needs to gain momentum quickly. “Build it in small pieces so you can implement something. Get three- to four-month deliverables.” If necessary, begin with a pilot project and tweak the venture as it goes.

A three-year project without any milestones is a ripe candidate for a sidetrack, Cameron says. “Think big; act small. Create momentum. Give project teams concrete targets they can work towards.”

On another front, Baldock says private partners should also be looking at how they can use the existing systems and technologies that governments already have. “Government usually thinks it has to replace old equipment, but we can offer new technology that is able to access data in old systems. In effect, you are putting a layer of technology on top of what they already have.” This kind of approach should reduce some of the unease in the public sector when it comes to moving ahead with joint ventures with private companies, he says.

Morine also suggests that the private sector ensure that any deal it reaches with government includes provisions for measuring the success of the project so the partners have factual information on how successful the arrangement is.

Alex Binkley ( [email protected]) is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa.

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