Private-Public Partnerships in Open Source
Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs) have the potential to create new promises or fulfill old ones. Look, for example, at London where the world’s largest subway system became a private-public partnership in 2003. Or at the redevelopment of downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. Sadly, however, the promises of PPPs in the world of software, as well as in the real world, are often unkept.
PPPs are favourite vehicles for spurring information and communication technologies (ICT) development in emerging economies because the largest buyer of ICT products and services is usually the government itself. PPPs are also convenient for introducing new approaches, such as open source software, that government might otherwise be uncomfortable adopting. Popular forms of open source PPP projects include Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs), E-Governance Labs, and Open Source Resource Centers.
Towards Building Better PPPs
“Attracting the best leadership for open source PPPs requires a compelling mission coupled with transparency, inclusive partnerships, sustainability, and innovation.”
In developing economies, the majority of joint government and industry projects promoting open source have been put into place to showcase the products and services from specific vendors. They have occasionally been misused and their record of success is poor. Such projects have been especially vulnerable, ironically, due to a general lack of collaboration among broader stakeholders in technology, policy and practice.
Today’s open source PPP projects may be dramatically improved by learning from successful projects in other fields such as pharmacology and advanced technology development. Five principles for improving open source PPP projects can be identified:
- Transparency: Vendor neutrality, or alternatively, friendly competition among participating vendors, can promote innovation and engage the interests of the larger ICT community. Public policy is poorly served when the interest of a single vendor transforms the public trust into private gain. Sustaining the well being of public resources demands fair competition based on merit as well as open collaboration where appropriate.
- Richness of participation: In most open source PPPs today only one government department, one company, and one academic institution (if at all) engage in the partnership. Turf protection and exclusivity become the norm. The key advantage of open source is its potential for achieving a resource explosion through the network effect of mutual support and collaboration. Participation can be enhanced by encouraging the contribution of ideas that offer solutions matching the objectives of the PPP project. Examples from NSF and DARPA of encouraging the broadest range of competent participation in high-tech projects include: prizes, grants, prototypes, mentoring, setting up wide ranging teams of collaborators, and underwriting or building centers of excellence.
- Sustainability: Despite initial optimism, a business model for most open source PPPs does not progress beyond the initial seed monies. Recent pharmacology PPPs have discovered how to use modest income from radically cheaper drug manufacturing to lead to self-sustainment. In the world of open source, PPP projects can look at using spin-offs such as packaging or services to help offset the costs of operation.
- Intellectual property protection: the preservation of intellectual property needs to be cast as a “win-win” opportunity for all participants. In the open source model, the value proposition for partners to share their intellectual property is sometimes tricky to communicate. As in any open source project, the participant’s ability to capitalize on downstream revenue opportunities is derived, in part, from clear identification with the shared creation of high-quality innovation. Acknowledgment of proper credit, in turn, is guaranteed by adherence to international copyright conventions even where open source licenses such as the GPL embody strong reciprocity requirements.
- Leadership: This may be the hardest challenge. In the top open source projects, the threshold for effective leadership can be quite high. Being able to enlist high-profile leadership or celebrity associates can dramatically improve the chances for success. But attracting such leadership requires a compelling mission and vision of purpose together with all the above mentioned qualities — transparency, inclusive partnerships, sustainability, and innovation. To support public ICT efforts, the project’s purpose must include serving public policy objectives such as building a national self-sustaining IT infrastructure from which a set of significant problems can be addressed. Critical problem domains include, for example, e-governance, education, health delivery, or micro-economic infrastructure.
The Bottom Line
In the open source world, private-public partnership models can be better served by promoting a larger concept of public and private benefits derived from inclusive collaboration on automation projects, not just by showcasing particular kernel technologies like Linux or particular distributions like Novell or Red Hat. Inclusive partnerships must be created beyond individual vendors and discrete government and educational organizations. After all, the message of open source is all about transcending private and proprietary boundaries — collaboratively evolving technologies, solutions and communities across common requirements.