The Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) Concept: What are PPPs
International Review of Business Research Papers
Volume 6. Number 2. July 2010 Pp. 150 -163
Conceptual Issues in Defining Public Private Partnerships
Nilufa Akhter Khanom
This article aims to explore the conceptual issues associated with defining Public
Private Partnerships (PPPs). There are different definitions for PPPs in the
literature on the subject. PPPs are viewed from different angles. These include as
a way of managing and governing organisations, as an institutional arrangement
for financial relationship, as a development strategy, and also as a language
game. The review of different definitions indicates that there is no precise agreed
definition of PPP. However, there are common features across the different
approaches as well as distinctive features. Several gaps have been identified
related to issues of governance, management and policy design of PPPs. This
article offers some suggestions relating to different conceptual issues which
emerge in defining PPPs.
Key words: Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), governance, management, and development.
Paper type: Conceptual paper.
Field of research: Public Policy and Public Sector Management.
Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) have become widely accepted and popular in public
sector management. The 1990s has seen the establishment of the PPP as the key tool
of public policy across the world (Osborne 2000, p.1) as an out come of New Public
Management (NPM). NPM has shifted the focus of management from public service to
service delivery. Since the 1980s, privatisation, market mechanism, contestability in the
delivery of public goods and services, deregulation, and reinvention of the role of
government were the keywords of NPM. At the centre of that NPM was a cut-back of
public sector expenditure, a delegation of responsibilities to the private sector and
fostering of voluntary engagement of private sector aiming at providing public goods
(Mitchell-Weaver and Manning 1991). The principles of NPM encouraged the
establishment of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) as a new management tool.
Now Public Private Partnership (PPP) has become a favourite tool for providing public
services and developing society in both developed and developing countries. At the
most general level Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) are generally recognised as long-
term cooperative institutional arrangements between public and private actors to
Nilufa Akhter Khanom, PhD candidate, Faculty of Business and Government, University of Canberra,
Phone: + 61 (02) 6201 5326 (w), E-mail: [email protected],
[email protected], Postal Address: University of Canberra, ACT- 2601, Australia
achieve various purposes. There is a wide range of PPPs with diverse features and
involved in different activities. However, very few people agree on what exactly a PPP is
and what is its definition. There is no precise and widely accepted definition of PPP and
the concept of PPP is still contested.
In this article I will try to explore different meanings that attached to PPPs, and attempt
to identify different features and problems related to different conceptual issues of PPPs
from different approaches.
2. Debates on the Concept of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs)
There are extensive debates about the concept of PPPs. The debate is whether PPP
needs a definition and what constitute a PPP. Some argue that PPP needs to be
redefined. For example, Hodge and Greve (2007, p. 545) state that ‘there is a need to
re-examine the different meanings and definitions given to PPP to find out whether the
concept is worth keeping and using for empirical studies’, since a huge number of
definition of PPPs are to be foundi. However, most of them stress different aspects of
PPP as they are derived from different contexts and represent different points of view.
For example, cooperation between public and private actors with a durable character,
risks, and benefits are important features in Klijn and Teismans’s (2004, p. 147)
definition; whereas different aspects of PPPs such as ‘long-term cooperative
relationships’ and ‘private sector providers of public service’ are found in Greve’s (2003,
p. 59) definition. However, some argue, for example William (1997)ii argues that PPP
needs no specific definition since the concept is assumed as very clear and most people
agree with the general definition; in general, PPP is the cooperative activities between
pubic and private sector. The debate about its application is whether it is a management
or governance tool or a development strategy or a language game. The next part will
explore how PPPs are viewed in different approaches in practical.
3. PPPs in Different Approaches
PPP is widely used for different purposes. However, there are divisions among the
scholars about the uses of PPP in practice. Some researchers focus on PPP as an inter-
organisational arrangement between different institutions in which PPP is used as a
governance or management tool; some concentrate on PPP as a development strategy;
whereas some think it is a discursive term or a ‘language game’ (Teisman and Klijin
2002). The next part of this article will explore how the concepts of PPPs are viewed in
each of these approaches.
3.1 Public Private Partnership (PPP) - A Tool of Governance or Management
A popular way of defining PPP is as a tool of governance or management. The dominant
theme is that PPP provides a novel approach to delivering goods and services to
citizens, and the novelty being the mode of managing and governing (Hodge and Greve
2005, p. 3). The authors who utilise this approach to PPP tend to focus on the
organisational aspects of the relationship. Most definitions that focus on governance and
management tools emphasise that PPPs are either inter-organisational or financial
arrangement between the public and private actors.
There are some common agreements in most PPP literature which focus on inter-
organisational arrangements. First, PPP is cooperation between organisations. The
second aspect is sharing risks. Risk sharing is viewed as an important incentive for both
the public and private sectors, since it is assumed that risk sharing could benefit both
actors. The third prospect is that these types of cooperation can result in some new and
better products or services that no single organisation either the public or the private
could produce better alone. Finally, it has been noted that in a PPP a partnership
involves a longer-term commitment which can continue for a number of years, e.g. 10 to
One definition of PPP is provided by the Dutch public management scholars Van Ham
and Koppenjan (2001, p. 598) with the lens of organisational relationships. They identify
PPP as ‘cooperation of some sort of durability between public and private actors in
which they jointly develop products and services, and share risks, costs, and resources
which are connected with these products’. This definition has several features. First, it
underlines cooperation of some durability, where collaboration cannot only take place in
short-term contracts. This collaborative feature is supported by Broadbent and Leaughlin
(2003, p. 332), Carr (1998, p.1) and Bovaird (2004, p. 199). Second, it emphasises risk-
sharing as a vital component. Both parties are in a partnership together have to bear
parts of the risks involved. Third, they jointly produce something (a product or a service)
and, perhaps implicitly, both stand to gain from mutual effort. Similar features are
evident in the definitions of PPPs that are provided by Klijn and Teisman (2000 and
2005) and Commission on UK Public Private Partnerships (2001), where PPPs are
described as ‘sustainable cooperation between public and private actors in which joints
and/or services are developed and in which risks, costs and profits are shared’ (Klijn and
Teisman 2000 and 2005) and as ‘a risk-sharing relationship between the public private -
including voluntary sector to bring about a desired public policy outcome’ (Commission
on UK Public Private Partnerships, 2001, p. 2). Stratton’s (1989) definition is very
similar, although, Stratton included ‘business and non-profit sectors’ in private sectors.
This is also supported by Salamon (1995b).
3.2 Public Private Partnership (PPP) – Tool of Financial Arrangements
Some definitions of PPP stress the financial relationships. There are promises that PPP
reduces pressure on government budgets because of using private finance for
infrastructures and they also provide better value for money in the provision of public
infrastructure. These usages of PPPs are prominent in the literatures on infrastructure
building. These mostly include BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer), BOOT (Build-Own-
Operate-Transfer) and BOO (Build-Own-Operate). The most common of these
arrangements is BOTiii. Campbell (2001) suggests a definition of PPP focusing on
financial arrangements that is ‘a PPP project generally involves the design, construction,
financing and maintenance and in some cases operation of public infrastructure or a
public facility by the private sector under a long term contract’. (For more definitions, see
Blondal 2005, p.19; Webb and Pulle 2002; Savas 2000, & Evans 2003).
There are other modes of financial arrangements in PPPs, in which both public and
private actors are involved in financing. Collin (1998) after surveying 117 different public-
private partnerships in Sweden defined Public-Private Partnership as an arrangement
between a municipality and one or more private firms where all parties were involved in
sharing risks, profit, utilities and investments through joint ownership (Collin 1998, p.79
and Collin & Hansson 2000, x). There are several aspects to this definition. First: it is
emphasising on sharing, such as risk sharing, profit sharing, and sharing of utilities.
Second, it underlines the joint ownership of organisations in a PPP project. Finally, the
most important aspect is the financial investment of all organisations. Similar prospects
are found in the definition provided by Sellgren (1990), when PPP is defined with
involvement or funding from more than one agency. With the similar view Tillman (1997,
p.30) has extended funding partners to include international organisations in a PPP.
3.3 Public Private Partnership (PPP) –A tool of Development Process
Public Private Partnership (PPP) is emerging as a new development arrangement. The
prominent arguments are PPPs maximise benefits for development through
collaboration (World Bank 1999) and enhanced efficiency (Brinkerhoff 2002). Thus PPP
is seen as a significant method of promoting development (Agere 2000, p. 68); and a
tool for development (Paoletto 2000, 30).
ADBI studied several public private partnerships programmes in Asia and the Pacific
and defines PPP as: ‘collaborative activities among interested groups and actors, based
on a mutual recognition of respective strengths and weaknesses, working towards
common agreed objectives developed through effective and timely communication’
(ADBI 2000, p. 42).
There are several features in this definition. First, common objectives - partnerships are
undertaken for the purposes of implementing objectives that have been agreed to by the
groups involved. The objectives are ideally developed through a process of
communication and negotiation that is acceptable to all actors involved. Second,
agreement to undertake activities means that there will be specific commitment to
undertake activities and these activities will be built on each partner’s strengths. Third,
actions of these PPP will be to overcome weaknesses of each partner - overcoming
apparent weaknesses may involve a sharing of expertise, knowledge or experiences by
one or more groups amongst the other groups. It also means first recognising the
weaknesses. Finally, actors in this process of partnership may include different
community groups such as NGOs, local governments, research and developments
institutes, and national governments. Some similar characteristics are evident in the
definition that is provided by Bennet and Krebs (1994)iv. The World Bank’s definition of
PPP is closely aligned to that of the ADBI. The World Bank (1999, p.4) defines PPP as
joint initiatives of the public sector in conjunction with the private, for profit and not-for-
profit sectors, also referred to as the government, business and civic organisations. In
these partnerships, each of the actors contributes resources (finance, human, technical
and intangibles, such as information or political support) and participates in the decision
making process. The notions of development strategy of PPP are covered by Osborne
(2001) as he states that PPP has traditionally been associated with urban renewal and
economic development in the USA Osborne (2001, p.1)v.
3.4 Public Private Partnership (PPP) - a Language Game
Another alternative view of PPP is as a language game. The language of PPP is a game
designed to ‘cloud’ other strategies and purposes. One such purpose is privatisation and
the encouragement of private providers to supply public services at the expense of
public organisations. Privatisation proponent Savas (2000) admits that ‘contracting out’
and ‘privatisation’ are terms that generate opposition quickly and that expression such
as ‘alternative delivery system’ or PPPs are more acceptable. Savas (2000) considers
that now PPPs enable private organisations to get a market share of public service
provision; however, he states that ‘PPPs invite more people and organisations to join the
debate’. Some characterise PPPs as ‘a loose term’ (Stern and Harding 2002:127) and
‘just a fashionable word’ (Gibelman and Demone, 1983; Bovaird, 1986; Kettner and
Martin, 1989). Thus, Teisman and Klijn (2002), Stern and Harding (2002), Linder (1999),
and Savas (2000) writing from different perspectives, all agree that the use of the term
‘public–private partnership’ (PPP) can be seen as a pejorative term like ‘contracting out’
and ‘privatisation’. Greve (2003) sees PPP as an attractive word and argues as ‘there is
clearly a danger that the PPP term is just another catchy piece of terminology that
governments would like to promote to keep off the attention of the more mundane
contracting for public services arrangements’ (Greve 2003, p.60).
4. Review and Discussion
From the review of different approaches of PPPs several issues emerge. There are
different opinions as to what is a PPP. There are certain recurrent themes with some
variations and some distinct features in different approaches. Several gaps have been
identified from the management, governance and policy perspective of PPP. This
discussion will analyse the similarities and variations of features of PPP concepts and
identify the gaps focusing on the governance, management and policy issues of PPP.
The review of different definitions of PPPs from different approaches depicts some
common features. First, cooperation, PPP is always cooperation and collaborative
activities. Second, public organisations are always involved in partnership with private
organisations. These private organisations may include business organisations, not-for
profit organisations, development agencies and international organisations. Third, there
is commitment in a PPP, where a partnership is arranged for long-term duration. Finally,
PPPs result in some specific goods or services.
The review identifies some of aspects in PPPs that are common but vary in nature.
These are: financial relationship, sharing activities and involved private actors. The most
common and perhaps the most important aspect is the financial relationship. The nature
of financial involvement of different actors may vary. For example, most infrastructure
PPPs are financed by the private sector. However, both public and different private
actors may be financially involved in a PPP for poverty alleviation vi. For example, the
government of Bangladesh and different international donor agencies are involved in the
Rural Micro-Credit Programme of PKSF for rural poverty alleviation in Bangladesh
(PKSF Annual Report, 2007).
Sharing is mostly common in most PPPs though the mode of application varies. Most
definitions with inter-organisational aspect of PPP emphasise risk sharing. However,
other approaches such as developmental aspect of PPP mostly focus on resource
sharing rather than risk sharing. Resource sharing includes sharing expertise,
knowledge, finance, technical supports and even political supports.
Involvement of private actors is another aspect in PPPs which is common with variety of
nature. Different approaches of PPP depict that the infrastructure PPPs mostly include
business organisations as private actors. However, the development approaches of PPP
reveal that the development PPPs may include several types of private actors, such as
business organisations, not for profit organisations, NGOs, development institutions,
international donor agents and even national government.
The only distinctive feature to emerge from the review is the purpose. The main
objective of PPPs in most approaches is that they are delivering services and/or
producing goods. However, the purpose of development PPP is delivering goods and
services perhaps for capacity building and facilitating access to these goods and
services. These may include development of any local area or local community through
the development of health or education services, or alleviate poverty of poor people.
The concept of PPP as language game reveals absolutely different aspects from other
approaches. These are: first, the term PPP is used to get advantages and to avoid
political controversy over other strategies such as privatisation; and second, it is some
times misused as a catchy word to attract and get benefits from different partners. This
usage of the term PPP means the researcher needs to be careful when identifying and
analysing the term PPP.
This review identifies several gaps in conceptual issues of PPPs. From the perspective
of governance, management and policy design of PPPs, several gaps such as the
nature and strength of inter-organisational relationship, and existence of inter-
organisational policy networks have been identified.
PPP is an inter-organisational corporation. The organisational networks (Rhodes 1997)
and the inter-organisational policy networks (Gage 1990) wield a higher degree of
functional interaction between organisations through which each organisation and actor
could contribute to govern or manage a PPP (Gage 1990). An inter-organisational
network such as a partnership board or a forum is essential for a PPP (Wettenhall 2007,
p. 395). Thus, the review of the inter-organisational aspects of PPPs raises several
questions. These are: what is the nature of inter-organisational relationship, how strong
is this relationship and whether there is any inter-organisational policy network exists
between different organisations. However, these are not mentioned in different
approaches. Similarly from the financial aspect, the question may arise how are different
actors engaged financially in a PPP?
PPP is considered as a tool of governance and management. To examine the
governance and management prospects of PPPs it needs to know how PPP relates its
process to governance and management. To do this it is important to know what does
governance and management mean. Governance comprises the mechanism, processes
and institutions, through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise
their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their difference. According to the
UNPD (1997)vii, both economic and political aspects of governance emphasise decision-
making process which affect the economic activities, its relationship with other interested
groups and also the policy formulation process. Policy community and policy networks
are important for successful policy outcomes since they may affect policy design and
decision making processviii. As PPP is desired to bring some policy outcomes
(Commission on UK Public Private Partnerships, 2001); thus several questions arise:
whether different actors are involved in and how are they involved in decision-making
process? What is the role of different actors as the part of network? These issues are
not evident in different approaches of PPP.
Different definitions of managementix reveal that management involves: first, the
achievement of results; second, personal responsibility and direction by the manager for
results being achieved; and third, the achievement will be done cheaply and effectively.
The management approaches of PPP raise several questions such as how different
actors are involved for achieving specific result, is there any person responsible as a
manager or how far each actor responsible for result being achieved. These questions
remain unsolved in explaining different conceptual issues of PPPs which result in
different challenges of governance. For example, shared decision making (Huxham
1996), governance under NPM (Wettenhall 2001), contribution of different actors to
governance (Bloomfield 2006); and management and supervision from the government
side (Salamon 1995a, p.103) have been identified as challenging issues in different
PPPs. Therefore, all these aspects of governance and management issues of PPPs
need to be specified.
The development approach of PPP also raises several questions, such as how the term
‘development’ is defined, for what kind of development does PPP work. If there is any
common objective and purpose then how that specific objective or purpose is defined.
How do different actors share their resources? These remaining questions make the
The review of the concept of PPP as language game also arises few questions. If a PPP
is not obvious enough as a PPP, then what are similarities and/or differences between a
PPP and a privatisation or /and a contracting out and how a PPP could be distinguished
from a privatisation and a contracting out, which are not clear in describing different
conceptual issues of PPPs.
Further, there are some other important issues that might affect a PPP. The political
culture, bureaucracy and the legal prospects of a PPP are not mentioned in any
approach. The political culture and bureaucracy (see Payne and Nassar 2007) are
important for a PPP policy design, since values, tradition, attitude and interest of political
parties, government and bureaucracy may affect a PPP. Especially in developing
countries the ‘power-seeking’ attitude of the politicians and the ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour
of the bureaucrats and lobbing groups (Grindle1991) may affect the PPP policy design
and implementation, which needs to be very specific.
Different policy communityx and networksxi can play a vital role in a PPP policy
development (Pross 1992, p. 98) and they might be involved as financer in a PPP
especially for developing countries. In this aspect the role of policy community and
networks, and the governance structure also need to be very specific in defining
different conceptual issues of PPPs.
The discussion has identified several gaps in different conceptual issues of PPPs. With
the focus of those identified issues this article likes to address several points, which
could be helpful to overcome problems related to governance, management and policy
design of PPP. The following suggestions relating to different conceptual issues that
emerge in defining PPPs are:
1. there might be several categories of PPPs in defining different conceptual
issues of PPPs relating to governance, management and policy design. For
example, the definition of a PPP for infrastructure and the definition of a PPP
for poverty alleviation may be different based on different related issues.
2. the common features such as nature of cooperation, inter-organisational
arrangements, financial relationships and commitment should be very precise.
3. governance aspects such as decision making process, and roles and
responsibility of different organisations/actors should be specific.
4. roles of different policy communities and policy networks should be evident.
5. the purpose of a PPP should be specific. For example, for a development
PPP, the definition of development would be precise in relation to purpose.
6. there should be definite direction for different actors to achieve the result of a
7. for developing countries the role of political parties, role of political
government and bureaucrats, the issue of political culture should be taken into
consideration in defining and designing a PPP policy.
The concept of PPP is defined by different scholar in different ways. There are extensive
debates on the concept of PPP. PPP is viewed in different approaches. These include
as a tool of governance and management, as a tool for financial arrangement, as a
development strategy and also as a language game. Most definitions and approaches of
PPP remain with several gaps and raise few questions relating to governance,
management and policy design of PPP. This article offers some suggestions, which
might be helpful in defining different conceptual issues of PPP.
i For example, Holland 1984, Huxham 1996, Bennet and Krebs 1994, Sellgren 1990, Stratton 1989, Collin 1998, Stern
and Harding 2002, Broadbent and Leaughlin 2003, Webb and Pulle 2002, Klijn and Teisman 2004 & 2005.
ii William argues that, ‘precise and imprecise definitions of public Private partnerships do not abound because it is
assumed that the issue is so transparent that the entity needs no definition’ (William 1997, p.41), though now there
are plenty of definitions of PPPs.
iii In general the financial arrangements of BOT are the project is designed and financed by the private sector, and run
and maintained by the private sector for the concession period. The private sector partner receives income from
running the infrastructure (e.g. toll road, electricity generation). After the expiry of the concession period, the legal
ownership of the project is transferred to the government.
vi Bennet and Krebs (1994) define PPP as cooperation between actors where they agree to work together towards a
specified economic-development objective to develop a local area or the local economy.
v Further, Osborne notes that PPP has also become a tool for providing public services and developing civil society in
such post communist regimes as Hungary, as well as a mechanism for combating social exclusion and enhancing
community development under European Union policy Osborne (2001, p.1).
vi Especially different actors such as different government agencies, foreign governments, NGOs, and international
donor organisations may be involved as financer in a PPP for poverty alleviation.
vii Governance has three basic aspects, such as economic, political and administrative. Economic governance
includes decision-making processes that affect the economic activities and its relationships with other economics.
Political governance is the process of decision making to formulate policy (UNDP 1997).
viii The relationships between the government and other interested groups as policy community may affect a policy
design and implementation (Marsh & Rhodes 1992). Policy community and policy networks have important role in
policy design and decision making process (Pross 1992, p. 98).
ix Management is about getting things done as quickly, cheaply and effectively as possible and usually getting thing
done through other people such as through other, workforce and personnel (Pollite and Bouckaert 2000, p. 9) and
direction of resources or human efforts towards the achievement of desired goals Hood (2007, p. 8). French and
Saward (1983) define ‘Management’ as the process, activity and carrying out the task of ensuring that a number of
diverse activities are performed in such a way that a defined objective is achieved–by the combined efforts of a group
of people, which includes the person carrying out the management.
x The policy community (Pross 1986 &1992) includes private institutions, foreign governments, donor agency and
different pressure groups.
xi Policy networks include institutional relationships between different agents and actors, and the governance
structures of these actors.
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