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By Steve Kelman

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The pitfalls of public-private partnerships


I promised in a recent post that I would write a few blogs about potentials and pitfalls in different kinds of public-private partnership, and here's the first.

There was a fascinating story recently in Beijing Review about an effort by a newly established not-for-profit to organize carpools in one district of the city in an attempt to contribute to  efforts to ease traffic congestion.  Anyone who has spent time in Beijing is certainly aware of the city's traffic nightmare – endless bumper-to-bumper car traffic and subway trains that (at virtually all hours of the day, not just rush hour) would probably make the animals in cattle cars feel like they have plenty of breathing space. Cars are also the second-largest source of the air pollution that is making residents' lives miserable and almost certainly killing large numbers of them prematurely.

A citizen named Yong Wang started a non-profit called the Free Ride Charity Foundation to pay the highway toll (a little less than a dollar) of cars that take two riders. He raised money to pay the tolls and to erect 10 billboards about the program. He also recruited volunteers to distribute leaflets and to stand at highway entrances. In a country where for a long time people were encouraged to rely on the government to deal with problems, and where the government itself is somewhat suspicious of citizen organization efforts outside of official structures, The Free Ride Foundation represents an interesting kind of public-private partnership.

The article reported that the effort has met with some success, but has also encountered problems involving lack of citizen social trust and government over-regulation. When volunteers first started handing out flyers advertising the program, many drivers scorned them, thinking they were yet another one of the ubiquitous commercial leaflet distributors trying to push some product. Many people worry about their personal safety when riding with strangers. In terms of laws and regulations, the legal liability of the driver in case of an accident is unclear, and it is possible that the driver might have to compensate a passenger injured through the driver's fault, even if the passenger was participating in this free ride program. And a city official was quoted in the article about the possibility that the carpoolers might be running an illegal taxi service.

This experience shows elements of both the potentials and pitfalls of this kind of public-private partnership. The civic engagement in public problems that the Free Ride Foundation represents is really attractive – especially in a country such as China, where these traditions have been weak or weakened for a long time. And the effort, if successful, could even make a contribution to the lack of social trust that is one of the barriers to getting more take-up. But those seeking to begin such innovative efforts need to pay the same kind of attention to issues of management and implementation that (as illustrated by my recent blog post on Obamacare) often get ignored in government as well.

Posted on Nov 13, 2013 at 5:18 AM

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Reader comments

Thu, Nov 14, 2013 KP

Allowing public-private partnership to cope with Traffic Problem is really crucial for Beijing since the government is incapable of managing the traffic. The question is how much discretion government will give to the private actors in dealing with public service issue, particularly on these matter to daily life issue such as transportation, infrastructure and etc. There are more and more NGOs emerging in China, either registered under the government or not registered. The problem facing those registered one is it finally becomes a rubber stamp and makes little influence; the problem facing those unregistered one is it is hard for them to make real impact. Thus, seeking the middle way, the public-private partnership is really interesting and I am curious to see the sustainability of this relationship~~

Wed, Nov 13, 2013 Steve Kelman

Al, I agree. I brought this up in the context of a public-private partnership because people need to think about these issues when trying these as well.

Wed, Nov 13, 2013 Al

The description leads me to believe that this is struggling because of cultural reasons (and some governance reasons), not because of the public-private nature of the enterprise. You write"these traditions have been weak or weakened for a long time". Who weakened them? Perhaps they should be called to account? In the States this ride-sharing happens spontaneously without direct subsidy. It's fashionable to ridicule people who worry about the larger culture, but degrading that culture means many things that should be easy are difficult.

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