Government officials, policy analysts, practitioners, and academics from diverse perspectives across the globe have enthusiastically endorsed the promise of public-private engagement to solve pressing problems of public policy. The endorsement often is a rallying cry for a change in policy or reform of a prevailing policy regime. In theory and practice, the idea of public-private (PP) blurs prevailing distinctions between roles and actions traditionally considered properly “public” and those roles and actions conventionally considered properly “private.” It signifies a shift away from the conventional adversarial relationship between sectors to one focused on addressing and solving problems based on mutually reinforcing relationships fostered by an alignment of interests. Loosening these fixed distinctions has generated creative solutions to vexing urban problems, yet as the public/private strategy reaches into ever-widening areas of public goods and services, policy makers and analysts are becoming increasingly uneasy over the loss of traditional public-sector values that seem to get jettisoned on the path to mutual benefit through close collaboration. Blurring the conventional public-private distinction challenges the values of public agency. And the loss of that distinction poses core questions of policy: What are the rules of engagement under the new PP paradigm? Who sets them and to what effect, in economic and political and planning realms? These clear but vexing governance questions still challenge the experts after more than three decades of PP practice.
In this paper I argue that a troublesome gap exists between the promise and the practice of PP. The promise of the PP paradigm evokes a formidable list of public benefits: collaborative advantage, resourcefulness, fiscal pragmatism, risk sharing, market-based efficiency, productivity enhancement, and innovation in design and management of public services. On the performance side, however, evidence of the strategy’s effectiveness is not extensive in light of the number of PP initiatives. Moreover, the thin body of evidence does little to counterbalance the pressing issue of PP governance, which is a nagging concern on the administrative side of the policy scorecard. While this policy concern is hardly exclusive to the PP model, the political rhetoric and elevated expectations of performance from cooperative (as opposed to adversarial) sector relationships focus a spotlight on the accountability issue and amplify the political risks of adopting the PP model as a governance reform. The PP strategy holds the promise of greater productivity by harnessing market forces and breaking down formal and established distinctions between public and private spheres of activity, but this hoped for gain in efficiency is vulnerable to policy mandates and regulatory constraints layered onto PP projects. To assure political success, rules of engagement are needed to provide a best-practice roadmap for this valuable urban strategy. Governance protocols, capacity building, and comparative research on performance comprise the basis for my conclusion that theoreticians and practitioners of the PP strategy need to address an agenda for building PP policy performance.