We the Partnership

Six recommendations to consider when creating new public-private partnerships

By Dozie Nwaneri | September 23, 2020

Photo above: Panelists from the public-private partnerships discussion on July 30. Clockwise starting at top left: Jenn Gustetic, Jim Thompson, Deborah Scher, Todd Rubin.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused the government to pivot its priority focus areas. Public-private partnerships have long been used by federal organizations and are among the innovation solutions now used by agencies to address new priorities – they can help agencies locate and acquire new resources that serve the public good. Creating public-private partnerships involves work—finding the right partners, working with legal experts and positioning your agency as a good organization with which to partner.

On July 30, the Partnership for Public Service hosted a panel discussion on creating effective public-private partnerships. Moderated by Jenn Gustetic, a program executive for small business innovation research at NASA, the panel featured three experts:

  • Jim Thompson, director for private sector engagement, Department of State.
  • Todd Rubin, attorney advisor, Administrative Conference of the United States.
  • Deborah Scher, executive advisor to the secretary, Secretary’s Center for Strategic Partnerships, Department of Veterans Affairs.

Speaking about the importance of public-private partnerships during the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson said, “Partnerships are really challenging, but at the same time incredibly rewarding too. We have done more with our partners than we could ever do ourselves. Go beyond, and stretch to what you want to accomplish.”

The three experts offered the following advice to agency leaders seeking to make new connections outside the public sector:

  1. Determine whether your agency needs additional resources to better serve its constituents.
  2. Consult your general counsel’s office or other in-house legal experts early on to avoid any potential legal issues.
  3. Consider a wide range of partners who are well-positioned to reach your key constituencies, including private companies, universities and other peer organizations.
  4. Invest time to get to know your partner. Discuss common motivations and how you can create a mutually beneficial partnership. Make sure you can answer two questions before contacting potential partners: What’s in it for them and why should they be involved?  According to Scher, “It’s critical to have a clear definition of success. Always have your partner’s goals in mind under changing circumstances and be willing to pivot as the process evolves.”
  5. Carefully vet your partner to avoid any surprises or potentially damaging situations and ensure that the partner has strong processes in place to avoid these situations in the future.
  6. Create a memorandum of understanding to outline each partner’s role, establish clear outcomes and identify governing authorities to avoid potential disputes. “MOUs inherently permit flexibility. Consider MOUs that emphasize outcomes and not how to achieve those outcomes,” said Rubin. “Don’t be too prescriptive on process – the world is ever-changing.”

For more information on how to build effective public-private partnerships, join the State Department’s Interagency Working Group on public-private partnerships by emailing [email protected] and explore the following resources:

Learn more about the Partnership’s innovation work on our website and view a full recording of the public-private partnerships panel discussion below.


Dozie Nwaneri