It’s being described as a classroom, but it’s really a 38-ft. mobile home with the insides gutted and replaced with educational displays. Scheduled to pull into Ottawa earlier this month, the curriculum being taught is fairly narrow: public-private partnerships are bad, government investment is good.The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ontario plans to keep the mobile classroom travelling around the province for the next two years. That’s a long time to raise awareness about the potential pitfalls public-private partnerships (P3) can face, but what’s surprising is that P3s related to IT make up only a small part of the message.
“We don’t have as big a piece on that, although certainly we went into (Toronto’s computer leasing deal with) MFP and other government contracts,” says Sharon Young, a CUPE spokeswoman. “The message is, they cost more and deliver less . . . a company wouldn’t get into it if there wasn’t profit in it for them.”
Perhaps it makes more sense that, in attempting to reach the broadest possible audience, the CUPE trailer puts more emphasis on P3s in health care, education or municipal services such as water sewage. In contrast, IT services and the contracts associated with them are so complex that it’s hard to tell what’s a straightforward purchase and what constitutes a real P3. You can’t get the locals all riled up about an arrangement whereby someone other than a government employee manages some servers, or hosts a Web site.
According to IDC Canada, however, IT-related P3s are on the rise. Last year the research firm released a report which estimated the pressure to improve service delivery will see federal P3s growing from $1 billion in 2004 to more than $2 billion in 2008, provincial P3s doubling to $3 billion and municipal government spending growing even faster, from $660 million in 2004 to almost $1.8 billion. Within a couple of years, IT P3s may make up the bulk of what CUPE will be fighting against.
Following the Ottawa launch, the trailer will make visits to CUPE local 503, where members can climb aboard and learn more about how these kinds of initiatives could threaten their jobs. The private sector, meanwhile, is gearing up for its annual conference hosted by the Canadian Council For Public-Private Partnerships. The organization’s Web site has a useful definition for P3s which is worth repeating as a balance to CUPE’s rhetoric: “A cooperative venture between the public and private sectors, built on the expertise of each partner, that best meets clearly defined public needs through the appropriate allocation of resources, risks and rewards.”
That’s not to say there’s no rhetoric on the private sector side. Though P3 proponents will acknowledge the risks, challenges and failures of many such ventures, they seldom refer to the impact of job loss. It’s assumed that downsizing, and the cost savings associated with reduced headcount, is among the benefits of P3s. This is a blind spot, because projects don’t just fail because of poor communication and planning. They sometimes fail because of poor morale among those who survive the cuts, or because the public sector organization working with the private sector has failed to ensure “knowledge transfer” from those who find themselves out of work once the partnership is formed.
By passing over this issue in silence, the boosterism of many P3 experts comes across as reactive and hollow as CUPE’s propaganda tour. It’s an uncomfortable, messy subject, but it will demand more discussion as IT P3s pick up steam.

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