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Evidence of Public-Private Stewardship in the Fight to Eradicate the COVID-19 Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kouliga Koala
April 26, 2020

The coronavirus, or COVID-19, is ravaging the whole world as almost two million confirmed cases are registered worldwide and over 100,000 people have died. The human, economic and psychological toll over the world is unprecedented. While governments are used to dealing with wicked problems that by nature have been persistent within a given policy area or group, COVID-19 is both a wicked and urgent problem. Governments are scrambling for solutions to a virus that took them by surprise. They have turned to the private and the non-profit sectors with expertise and capabilities. What is noticeable is the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs) to address the COVID-19 public health crisis. The fervent commitment from all sectors to the fight against COVID-19 is evidence of public-private stewardship, which has led to promising solutions. By private, I am referring to both the private sector and the non-profit sector.

This period of coronavirus is complex because of the social, economic, financial, psychological and political tumult that it has created. The situation is more than an emergency not only because it was unexpected at the time it became publicly known, but also because of the scale and the rapid decimation of human lives and economic activities. Governments and their partners have shown leadership and direction to assure their populations that extraordinary actions are being taken to contain the spread of virus. The most widely adopted and trusted measure is social distancing. Governments issued stay-at-home orders and ordered companies to function with essential workers only. Despite these measures, governments in severely infected countries including Italy, Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, to name a few, still face the challenge of providing the critical supplies such as ventilators, beds, masks and gloves. These supplies are needed to protect healthcare workers and treat thousands of hospitalized patients.

The consequences of COVID-19 could be more disastrous if governments did not involve the private sector. The private sector has responded positively to the government request to engage in PPPs. In the United States, where the situation has become more critical, the President has invoked the Defense Production Act, requiring companies such as 3M. Co., Ford, General Motors and Tesla to repurpose their production lines to produce the critical supplies to help ease the national emergency. Those companies have the capabilities and expertise to act more quickly than their public counterpart.

The current joint effort is a perfect example of public-private stewardship. It shows that public-private stewardship is intensified and adhered to a greater extent by the private partners. Koala and Steinfeld (2018) argued that when the public and the private sectors engage in PPPs, they are engaging in public-private stewardship that forces them to work on achieving shared goals. Public-private stewardship does away with self-interested and concealed opportunistic behavior and puts public interest first. Despite notable shortages, the use of PPPs has allowed the expansion of testing capabilities and the availability of masks and ventilators. Even though those joint actions are a response to a crisis, they show that the private sector can be expected to defend the public interest in times of uncertainty and upheavals. Putting the public interest first is advantageous to both partners. The same citizens that confer the government its legitimacy are also business customers. Thus, public crises affect both sectors almost equally. For example, the stay-at-home orders mean little to no economic activity, such as with traveling or sales. As a result, businesses incurred significant financial losses. Governments feel the pressure to protect citizens and mobilize resources. Their legitimacy is at play. When the public and private sectors operate solely according to their own principles, there remains a void that is not filled. This void becomes a weakness that delays quick action during emergencies.

Governments must expand the understanding of public-private stewardship and extend it to the private sector, where it is integrated into business models. In the stewardship relationship, the public sector should have the upper hand to ensure that stewardship is understood by its private partner. The World Health Organization recognizes that the capacity to carry out stewardship actions must be built into national leadership. Crises such as COVID-19 are a reminder that governments need to build the capacity of both their employees and their partners. This will facilitate the mobilization, planning and coordination of actions, as well as the sharing of responsibilities so that interventions are quicker and easier. Building new relationships during crises can be extremely difficult and expensive. Partners may resist stewardship actions without any prior understanding. In fact, the stewardship theory stipulates that partners should focus on the alignment and congruence of interests to serve collective and social goals (Snippert et al., 2015). As the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the importance of public-private stewardship, research and training must be conducted for both the public and private partners.

Author: Kouliga Koala is an all-but-dissertation (ABD) student in Public Administration and Policy in the School of Public Service at Old Dominion University. He holds a Master of Public Administration and a Bachelor’s in International Relations and History. His research covers the broad discipline of public administration and policy and the subfields of public procurement and public-private partnerships.

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