I thank Michael Fenn for his engaged and engaging review of my book on public-private partnerships in Canada. I am particularly appreciative of his view that the book provides “practical advice” on PPPs by constructing counterarguments beyond the ideological. Ideologues, it seems, exist on all sides when it comes to PPPs. It is scarcely possible to find a proponent or detractor whose position is not in some way motivated by a sense of what government ought to be doing, how services ought to be provided in Canada, and who ought to be making decisions when it comes to public infrastructure.
Most striking with Fenn’s review is that it turns on the normative framing of the PPP issue itself as opposed to the empirical detail or substance of the book. The concluding paragraph alone makes it clear that Fenn believes “our PPP agreements” are here to stay. As a fait accompli, the task of PPP policy research shifts decisively from interrogating the why of PPPs to instead focusing on improving the how. But a PPP is a political choice: it did not emerge by chance and it is not a practical necessity today. If the normative underpinnings of this policy are ignored, it is simply not possible to understand its dominance given the checkered PPP track record.
Fenn argues that it makes sense for PPP policy makers to “learn from their mistakes and hone the policy, rather than throw over the whole initiative.” Indeed. Yet, in the absence of government conducting a systematic evaluation of the traditional model, high-profile failures on both sides of the ledger leave one wondering why only PPPs deserve such considered treatment and grace. The simple answer is that the PPP push has never been strictly evidence-based. Four hospital projects from the early 2000s sit on the precipice between debate and silence on the whys of PPPs in public health care. Fenn queries my choice of older projects at the expense of those developed more recently. I target those four because they ushered in a sea change, they sit as nodal points connecting highly politicized PPP policy to its normalization today. Opening up the black box of PPPs by sorting fact from fiction initially motivated the research that went into my book; exposing the ideological underpinnings and dogged tenacity of PPP support was, I hope, an outcome of its publication.
Reading Fenn’s review reminds us of the core issue at hand: public infrastructure decisions are about more than just bricks and mortar. Differences in our interpretations and personal opinions fall away on this fundamental point. PPPs implicate not only public works but also key social services, urban planning, fiscal burdens and financial windfalls, and the ability of government (and citizens) to make decisions in these areas when and if they see fit. Contributing to an informed debate about how PPPs work, ought to work, and why they exist at all is a much-welcomed opportunity. I thank Michael Fenn and the Literary Review of Canada for providing me with space to continue the conversation.