Suspicious minds -- trust and releasing the potential of public-private partnerships in statistical capacity development

The debate about public-private partnerships (PPPs) in official statistics has often been focussed on how statisticians can get hold of the data they covet from the private sector. This risks not paying enough attention to other improved and new types of public-private partnerships for capacity development which could drive innovation, lower costs, leverage funding, and even produce and disseminate data.

But whatever the area of collaboration, we must do something about the fear, misconceptions, and ultimately, the lack of trust which is limiting the vision, clouding the thinking, and holding back the potential on both sides.

The United Nations World Data Forum in Dubai showcases the theme of 'New approaches to capacity development for better data.' This should help us develop new ways to work across traditional boundaries. There are already many good examples and ideas of how different sectors can work together. We need to share and learn from these. But to make this meaningful, we need to make big strides in the way we think about each other.

While 'true love' between the private and public sectors may never be realistic, the demands of Agenda 2030 force us to look at how we can at least build a 'marriage of convenience'.

Like any effective relationship, the two sides should combine their strengths to achieve things they couldn't do alone, and it is not a purely transactional relationship. The foundation must be trust. But we must recognise there are some large 'elephants in the room,' built on half-truths and misconceptions, fuelled by a lack of knowledge.

For the public sector, there are suspicions that the private sector doesn't really care about results, ethics are optional, and that money spent through the private sector on capacity development is syphoned-off into profits.

Publicly-funded bodies also fear that the public won't stomach a 'date' let alone a 'marriage' with the private sector. Or rather, partnerships with the private sector are the thin end of a wedge that threatens the existence of official statistics. But the big reality check for official statistics is that without collaboration in moving towards the efficiency, innovation, expertise, data, and delivery-focus offered by external partners; the public and politicians are likely in any case to lose faith in official statistics. Yes, the big existential questions are scary, but they need to be addressed, urgently. They affect capacity-building as much as any other areas of official statistics. By developing strong models of partnership in capacity-building, we can light the way on the broader crisis of identity in official statistics.

On the other hand, the private sector suspects that data shared with the public sector will scare off customers due to fear of 'Big Brother' and working with the public sector is prohibitively difficult, risks inefficiency (not least because many NSOs may effectively over-charge for their capacity development services) and strangle innovation. But there is an enormous space for official statisticians to prove their worth more widely to the private sector and even trade with it in some way, for example in areas such as managing data quality and confidentiality.

Another big concern for the private sector is bureaucracy. However, there are already good examples of innovative collaborations that develop capacity while navigating successfully around public sector bureaucracy. But there are also examples of the public sector using this bureaucracy as an excuse not to engage with the private sector; are statistics laws and departmental regulations really that restrictive, or is it a distrustful fixed mindset that is restricting the possibilities of action?

Once we recognise these kinds of 'elephants' we can develop actions that build the trust we need.

There are four possible areas of trust-building we need to examine. Like most successful marriages, PPPs in statistics require:

(1) a deep understanding of each other's needs and fears

(2) rules and boundaries that frame the relationship and provide security

(3) a track record (examples/benchmarks) of good behaviour

(4) recognition and support by the society around us.

The last on the list is particularly important, as businesses, their customers, and the general public all need to trust that the 'marriage' can work in order to provide the support (and, in this case, the data) needed for it to work. For this, we will first need a thoughtful consideration of rules and boundaries but, perhaps more importantly, also how we present ourselves to the society around us.

We won't solve all of the challenges at this year's UNWDF. However, we should be able to agree on actions that continue to build trust and develop models for capacity-building that are cross-sectoral, efficient, and mutually beneficial.

The Forum will see a wide mix of the actors and sectors that are usually involved in capacity development projects in statistics gathering together, such as technical service providers, NSOs in cooperation with each other, regional and international bodies, specialised companies (such as in IT and data science), and independent individual consultants. They all should play a continued role in capacity building. We need to unpack our respective strengths and develop working models that get the most out of each of type of partner, the most out of the resources available, and can leverage more resources. To do this, we will need to openly acknowledge the necessary trade-offs in the way we design models of partnership, which in itself should help build trust. Just a few examples include:

  • NSOs may offer expensive capacity-building services, but they offer essential types of expertise
  • the private sector may not have off-the-shelf solutions that will fit any NSO, but they have the capacity to innovate and apply technology in ways not possible by an NSO, and
  • technical service providers, rather than syphoning investment into profits, can mobilise and coordinate expertise efficiently and drive down costs, without necessarily having in-depth technical expertise themselves.

In Dubai, I will be speaking on this topic in a session (TA1.04 Impact measurement, SDGs and support to official statistics -- the role of PPPs) run by GOPA, a technical service provider in capacity-building, jointly with UNDP. The session also includes speakers from an NSO and representatives from other sectors. This and other sessions will provide a valuable opportunity for us all to share evidence, ideas and perspectives. I also look forward to receiving responses to this blog post with your thoughts and ideas to keep the conversation going.

Matthew Shearing is a consultant working across the public and private sectors on capacity development in official statistics and data for development more generally. He is Co-Founder of the Online Privacy Foundation and previously led the International Relations functions at the UK’s Office for National Statistics.