Lately I’ve been reading about the growing number of for-profit companies offering their service to local governments to manage certain agency functions. Since the 1980s, when outsourcing became popular, local governments hoping to create cost efficiencies have turned over many of their service needs to private contractors – waste collection, landscaping, IT, and public transit.
But increasingly, smaller cities are contracting to have private companies run whole departments or whole cities. Elected officials and even some voters see this as a cost cutting move and an efficient use of tax dollars. Companies offering this service can proudly show their success with improved management, lower costs, and better value for the tax dollar. There is, of course, a lot of debate about all this.
I started thinking about what is different about outsourcing in the context of nonprofit partnerships with park agencies where the idea of privatizing in some quarters has taken on a bad name. There is a fear that privatizing services may mean that the work becomes tied more to the bottom line than to public service – let alone the debate about whether this contracting drives down price and offers better service.
One observation is that those public agencies most successful in their private partnerships are ones who have created capacity to understand and manage them; and, simple outsourcing is different from public-private partnerships both in their level of service and in the relationship between the two parties. Since government is increasingly about governance partnerships, we in the parks world should be more mindful about what it takes to do them right.
It’s not that there’s a huge difference between park partners and city park departments in their goals. Most partnerships around parks are with nonprofit organizations with missions not dissimilar from their public agency partners – albeit with a parks-centric focus and a fiercely loyal constituency.
The partner’s ability to bring robust citizen engagement to the process separates it from the typical efficiency partner. What happens in parks is not just a matter of efficiency but of sorting out a community’s complex set of hopes, wishes and needs. Parks are about beauty, recreation, nature, public health, economics, and a respite for the eye and body. It’s a tall order for any manager and thus best accomplished by a team skilled and delighted in the hard work of reaching out to many stakeholders with differing views. It takes time, and time is money.
Those of us in the parks world are following the leading trends in New York and other big cities around their signature parks – parks often just as important for their economic development benefit as their beauty and recreation potential – and trying to figure out what the best framework is for making these partnerships work. But there are thousands of smaller cities and smaller parks that hold lessons too, for their careful cultivation of community partners, goal-setting and management style. In the coming weeks my goal is to cover some of these smaller efforts for their lessons in transparency, accountability, and community engagement.
Partnerships are complex and demand a high level of skill and expertise to sustain. There is a need to capture the lessons and stories about what’s working and turn them into a basis for a new understanding of public private governance around parks that can be shared as real learning and less as anecdotal anomalies. City Parks Alliance and others are working on a way to capture these lessons. In the mean time I’ll be working on rounding up some of them.
Kathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.