15 September 2023, 17:30 - 18:30
Blavatnik School of Government and Zoom
Open to the public
This event is free – register below to attend

Public–private partnerships are an inevitable feature of twenty-first-century public service provision. But if they are to maintain the trust of the citizens they serve, they must deliver what they are supposed to and be held to account when they do not.

In recent years, we have seen the best and worst of collaboration between governments and partners in the private and not-for-profit sectors. The UK's COVID-19 vaccination programme saw public healthcare systems band together with private companies, universities and civil society to develop and deliver a lifesaving vaccine that reached the most marginalised in society. 

Conversely, the emergency acquisition of personal protective equipment (PPE) – a significant amount of which was unusable – bypassed standard procurement procedures, leaving serious concerns about probity and value for money.

These challenges are not new, nor are they unique to the COVID-19 response. From buying aircraft carriers and armoured vehicles to probation services and employment support, across the world governments' efforts to deliver complex policy programmes and outcomes often fail (Hodge, 2016). Ultimately, these failures mean that taxpayers’ money is wasted, citizens are left underserved and public trust in government is undermined. 

Increasingly, there is recognition amongst scholars and practitioners that for the most complex public services, our traditional approach to public contracting isn't working. Governments need a more flexible, collaborative approach that facilitates joint problem-solving and adaptation to meet the needs of service users and wider society.

However, this more “relational” approach also raises questions about public accountability. If the deliverables of a contract change over time, what precisely ought we hold partnerships to account for? If responsibility is shared between the members of a partnership, who is accountable to whom?  

In this session, Professor Carolyn Heinrich will discuss the challenge of holding public-private partnerships to account with Dame Margaret Hodge. The conversation will draw on Dame Margaret’s experiences during her 5 years as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to explore the challenges of contracting out public services, as well as broader issues of public accountability and its importance to maintaining trust in government. Together with an in-person and online audience, they will consider how advances in the state of the art of public sector contracting might help or hinder accountability, and ultimately how we can ensure public–private partnerships better deliver for the citizens they serve.  

In this public talk, Professor Carolyn Heinrich (George Eastman Visiting Professor 2022–23, University of Oxford and University Distinguished Professor, Vanderbilt University), welcomes Dame Margaret Hodge, who has over five decades of experience in public service. This event will provide a timely discussion, aimed at helping reconcile collaboration and accountability in a way that can inform better practice.

Professor Heinrich’s latest research explores “formal relational contracting” in public-private partnerships and points to the need to cast a new relationship between government and independent providers. Developing new frameworks for collaboration to tackle the most complex problems facing society can create new challenges to accountability.

Therefore, the conversation will draw on Dame Margaret's expertise as a public servant dedicated to strengthening accountability for public spending in conversation with Professor Heinrich's work. Dame Margaret's experience as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee gives her a unique insight into a topic that remains incredibly salient, in the context of recent contracting challenges from the failure of Transforming Rehabilitation to the scandals surrounding COVID-19 procurement.

About Dame Margaret Hodge

Dame Margaret has been the Labour Member of Parliament for Barking and the heart of Dagenham since 1994. She has held several government positions in the last Labour government, holding portfolios across education, work and pensions, business and culture. In 2010 she became the first woman elected Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, serving until 2015.

Related School research

See the work of our Government Outcomes Lab, as well as work by faculty member Thomas Elston such as this paper on the Public Accounts Committee.

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