Creating a Rosetta Stone is the Key to Successful Public-Private Partnerships

Nong Mars/

If partners don't establish a common language, the relationship is likely doomed before it even begins.

Praduman Jain is CEO of Vibrent Health.

Public-private partnerships, used by a variety of state, local and federal governments for decades, have gained popularity in recent years as an effective approach to managing large government projects while mitigating financial risk, increasing innovation and delivering long-term value.

A healthy, functional government-industry partnership can be an excellent solution for addressing the unique challenges of government agencies that are constantly pushed to do more with less. But executing a successful public-private partnership is a complex and demanding process—in part because it often feels like the key stakeholders are speaking different languages.

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Establishing effective partnerships requires common ground: a framework that brings together the disparate languages of industry and government and puts stakeholders on the same page. If this critical step is overlooked, the partnership is likely doomed before it even begins.

The first step to forming a successful partnership is to come equipped with the right frame of mind. Partners need to understand each other’s values and interests in order to build a solid foundation for working together, and transition their individual missions and goals into shared missions and goals.

Government and industry can improve their understanding of partner interests and align their goals throughout their collaboration by establishing a common framework that serves as a Rosetta stone for their collaboration. The three-stage framework discussed below is based on years of partnering experiences and has been used successfully across dozens of industry, academia and government partnerships.

1. Agree on the pillars of partnership.

Establish ground rules for working together that can keep the partners in alignment over time, and review them together to lay the foundation for the relationship. For example:

  • Respect the other’s value. Understand that each partner brings something unique to the relationship.
  • Know you’re not perfect (and don’t expect your partner to be). Accept that there will be mistakes made along the way.
  • Make the time to understand the other’s needs, risks and pressures.
  • Be personable. Find things in common to talk about outside of the partnership context. Show your sense of humor—it goes a long way.
  • Follow through on commitments. If you cannot meet a stated commitment, be upfront and communicate clearly with your partner.
  • Be honest. Be genuine. Trust (or lack thereof) can make or break a partnership. Be truthful and sincere in your communication.
  • Stay in regular contact. A reduction in contact should be a red flag in any partnership relationship.
  • Don’t make your lack of planning become their emergency. When you put time pressure on your partner because of lack of planning, you show that you value your own time more than theirs.
  • Have clearly defined roles. Be open and realistic about the role of each team member. State responsibilities verbally and in writing.
  • Have a contract and keep it current. Keep written agreements current and available to both parties in order to stay aligned and avoid or resolve potential conflict.
  • Don’t combine project and contractual discussions. In a contractual discussion, you each have the duty to represent the best interests of your respective organization. Keep those discussions separate so when it comes time to actually do the work together, the teams can work together and there are no lingering or unresolved negotiation issues.
  • When there’s conflict (there will be!), go back to the framework. There will be bumps in the road. Verbalize this up front, accept it and plan for it. When you experience a challenge, revisit your framework exercise to regain alignment.

2. Create a joint mission statement.

After discussing the pillars together, write a short mission statement that will act as the guiding force behind the collaboration. Writing it together will help both parties feel invested in upholding it.

3. Record motivations, risks and expectations.

Identify and share the individual motivations, risks and expectations each partner has for the relationship. Discuss overlapping motivations and identify whether any are in opposition. Talk about the potential risks and challenges of working together and address concerns that might interfere with effectively accomplishing the partnership’s goals. Finally, with all the cards on the table, discuss each partner’s expectations. Stating and documenting these expectations—and addressing any misaligned expectations at the outset—is healthy and necessary for the partnership to succeed.

At its core, a public-private partnership is a relationship: a collaboration between human beings that must be designed thoughtfully and treated respectfully. Putting a solid framework in place and investing in it together will help foster a creative, energetic and effective partnership that is able to deliver the best results for citizens.