By Samuel Bendett
On March 9, 2015, I attended Partnership Practitioners Forum: Transforming Ideas Into Impact, organized by the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships, USAID and Concordia as part of the Global Partnership Week (GP3W). This was State Department’s first gathering of partnership builders from governments, multilateral organizations, civil society leaders, and private companies. According to State, “this new community of partnership practitioners will be known as the Global Partnership Collective and will bring together partnership practitioners and leaders from around the globe and across many disciplines to engage in discussion on the ideas and issues that shape our lives and challenge our times, identify partnership opportunities that address global challenges, and coordinate on collaborative solutions.”
Overall, such events are very useful to the larger US government and private sector community working on researching, analyzing and implementing public-private partnerships (PPP) – networking with forum attendees presented opportunities to learn about PPP conduct and execution. In fact, lead panelists and keynote speakers laid out a fairly comprehensive set of problems and potential solutions to forging and maintaining such partnerships. Yet it seemed that such evidence was geared more towards US civilian agencies and their private sector partners, not DoD-specific issues related to such partnerships. In fact, one DoD attendee said that “for the Department of Defense, PPPs are a huge gray area that is often difficult to traverse…”
Why is it still difficult for the Department of Defense to implement a wide range of PPPs that are practiced by other agencies in the US Government? There are no simple explanations, but the most significant one points to the absence of an overall legal framework that would guide partnership with the private sector. That is already changing, as each geographic Combatant Command is forging partnership it sees as advancing the missions and enabling a diverse set of solutions – engaging with NGOs, international organizations and academia. In particular, US Northern Command has a framework on engaging with non-government entities and institutions during and following a natural disaster in the United States. And DoD’s existing framework on working with numerous private sector companies on developing, testing and incorporating new and existing technological solutions that enable the warfighter is well documented. Yet this State Department forum presented an entirely new outlook on partnering with the private sector – doing so in the framework of international development and humanitarian assistance, two mission sets where DoD takes a decidedly secondary role.
With increasing frequency of major natural disasters, internal civil and military conflicts and potential for catastrophic outbreaks of diseases like the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, DoD is asked more and more by the international community to assist with a diverse set of tasks – from logistics to medical aid to strengthening host nation’s infrastructure and civilian response to providing relief supplies. Such mission areas are not DoD’s core competency, and even when US military can bring its strength and experience to the table, it finds that it has to engage potential partners that normally are not figured into military training and doctrine – United Nations, translational humanitarian organizations, local civil society groups, international religious outreach, as well as many other non-government actors from the private and non-profit sectors. Partnering with such organization, even on a temporary basis for the duration of a crisis, calls for a different knowledge set than testing or procuring military equipment. This is where this forum was at its strongest – a private sector attendee wanting to learn how USAID or State Department engages non-government organizations on providing clean water to local populations may get a comprehensive PPP review from speakers and fellow attendees. For DoD, this was definitely a place to listen and take notes, but not necessarily engage in full debate due to differences in approaches towards public-private partnerships.
I attended this event because my DoD-supported TIDES Project (www.star-tides.net) at the National Defense University seeks to provide reach-back knowledge on demand to US military if and when Pentagon needs to work with non-government sector in disaster and emergencies. For years, our projects served as the bridge between DoD policymakers and field offices and the massive universe of private sector technical solutions for populations under post-war, post-disaster and post-conflict stress. Working with the private sector is at the core of the project, along with letting US military decide how and why it could implement such solutions in its concept of operations or actual deployments. If DoD will be tasked more frequently to assist affected populations around the world, it would need to learn not just from State Department practices, but bring to bear on existing relationships and international networks forged by projects like TIDES. According to official directives from several Secretaries of Defense, partnering with the private sector is a way of the future for DoD as it navigates an increasingly complex world. Here is then to greater learning and understanding why such partnerships will matter more and more for DoD and its civilian and non-government partners.