Public-Private Partnerships during COVID-19: time to ask some questions

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To say that the world was not prepared for a pandemic is an understatement. The point was made early on that in order to overcome COVID-19 and make it to the other side, it was “all hands-on deck”. This included individuals, health experts, governments, the private sector and – the focus of this piece – the technology sector. This piece will shed light on the power and impact of public-private partnerships during states of emergencies, illustrate the blurring of lines between the private and public sector and argue that while these partnerships are a necessary part of COVID-19 response, we must continue to ask critical questions.

Partnering with the private sector

In the face of the pandemic, public-private partnerships are a necessity as governments alone are not equipped to provide the full range of services and expertise. These partnerships are especially needed when the problem at hand is one that requires innovative solutions and expertise that can respond to the current, rapidly-changing landscape. However, while public-private partnerships are crucial, it is important that during states of emergencies and times of heightened reliance on the private sector, we continue to critically examine the blurring of lines between the public and private actors, the power dynamics present in these partnerships, and finally, the level of transparency within these relationships.

The COVID-19 pandemic expanded governments’ reliance on the private sector. The ingenuity of the technology sector has resulted in their integration into public partnerships. For example, the Israeli tech sector has been able to assist the public sector with system detection and diagnosis, patient tracking, contamination prevention, and protection of medical staff. Israel saw an “unprecedented multidisciplinary collaboration” between the medical field, defence industry, and private companies in their efforts to provide the Ministry of Health with non-invasive ventilation devices. They were able to do this by designing simple models of ventilation devices at a low cost from available resources and repurposed defence companies’ production lines for manufacturing.

When public welfare, evolution of technologies, funds and privacy are involved, the decisions made within these partnerships have severe societal implications.

In India, the government launched their contact tracing app called “AarogyaSetu” through private-public partnership with the technology sector. This app enables the user to assess their own risk of COVID-19 infection. It does so by calculating their interaction with others using Bluetooth technology, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. In its official press release, the government praises the partnership by saying that the app “is a unique example of the nation’s young talent coming together and pooling resources and efforts to respond to a global crisis”.

However, while both partnerships produced the end results required by the government, the partnerships themselves – their inner workings – were left largely hidden. Public-private partnerships is a policy buzzword that is used as a self-explanatory relationship, when in fact at times it hides more than it reveals. It uses the ideas of “partnership” and “collaboration” as positive attributes. While that might be true, when public welfare, evolution of technologies, funds and privacy are involved, the decisions made within these partnerships have severe societal implications. Therefore, it is vital that the public has full transparency and clear outlines for the responsibilities that are established. For example, if one of the ventilators fail, who is responsible? If there is a data leak facilitated by the AarogyaSetu app, is it the government’s responsibility or the private sector experts’ that developed the technology? Concerns over transparency and responsibility are even more important during states of emergency as these are times in which decisions can be made with little consideration for long-term impact of partnerships and shared information.

Blurring the lines between the private and public sector

Public-private partnerships require an exchange of ideas, and in some cases, this may include personal information moving between public and private sectors. The data gathered by one sector may be used and moved to the other. This happens as the private and public spheres become increasingly intertwined.  This trend of blurring the lines between the two happens as citizens expect their governments to provide services with the same speed and efficiency as the private sector. Colin J. Bennett, Kevin D. Haggerty, David lyon, and Valerie Steeves argue that emerging technologies expedite the breakdown of traditional lines that once distinguished between the two and may allow data to move back and forth without the traditional oversight of a judicial warrants.

This trend is accelerated during states of emergencies as partnership and cooperation between the two sectors is essential for pandemic response. However, this lack of oversight brings up some key issues. One of which is that we give our data to the private sector in a different context than we do for government agencies. The level of consent is based on the context of who we hand our data over to. However, if the data is shared between the two sectors without our explicit knowledge, it creates an environment in which we never really know when our personal information is collected by government health agencies, or when information traditionally handled by police might become accessible to private companies or vice versa.

It is possible to have a positive outlook on exchange of information between the two sectors as long as it is transparent about how data is used. However, this is also heavily impacted by culture of the society and the level of trust the society has in both government and corporate bodies.

This exchange of information between the two sectors is partially why South Korea was able to quickly respond to the pandemic. An article published by Brookings dives into South Korea’s surveillance infrastructure and political willingness to use surveillance technology. This has allowed the government to accurately pinpoint the movement and interaction of its citizens through electronic transaction data (which the government has used to investigate tax fraud even before the pandemic), mobile phone location logs and surveillance camera footage. This flow of information between the two sectors allows the government to accurately track citizens and outbreaks as they have access to large amounts of data. Considering this, the public opinion on public health authorities’ actions in the face of the pandemic is extremely positive. This might be due to the ownership citizens feel as they too have access to up to date information on reported infections on public websites. This illustrates that it is possible to have a positive outlook on exchange of information between the two sectors as long as it is transparent about how data is used. However, this is also heavily impacted by culture of the society and the level of trust the society has in both government and corporate bodies.

When Partnership Goes Wrong

The UK presents a perfect example of what happens when, during states of emergencies, public-private partnerships are not critically examined, and how this sets a path toward profit rather than the public good. In an explosive piece for the Guardian, George Monbiot outlines how the UK government bypassed the National Health Service (NHS) due to the government’s “ideological commitment to the private sector”, and essentially wasted a £12bn budget by awarding secret contracts to private companies with personal and financial interest in their party. The lack of transparency and open competition for private partners resulted in partnerships that lacked the expertise present in the public service which has resulted in a failure in their test-and-trace system.

This tension between efficiency and democratic requirements of openness and transparency is evident in public-private partnerships that require the private sector to provide public service delivery. However, this need for transparency must go both ways. As argued by Anne-Marie Reynaers and Stephan Grimmelikhuijsen, we need to have both external and internal transparency. External transparency is the visibility of the partnerships to the outside world, such as the media or the general public. However, for a successful public-private partnership, we also need internal transparency between the two partners. The public actor should provide clear guidelines and expectations to the private partner and the private partner should provide insight on its ability to perform the given task and its ability to meet the expectations.

In the case of the UK there was little external transparency and based on the private sector’s shortcoming in providing the expertise and products required, there might have been a lack of internal transparency between the actors. It is vital that during states of emergencies, as tempting as it might be, we continue to expect transparency, open advertisements for services, competition bidding for government funding, and contracts that benefit the public, because as Monbiot perfectly observes in the case of the UK: “our crisis is the privatiser’s opportunity”, a “profit bonanza”.

Public-private partnerships and their power dynamics

The development and deployment of contact tracing apps can serve as a case study of the power dynamics present during states of emergency between the public and private sector. As governments worked to develop their own individual tracing apps, they ran into two tech giants: Apple and Google. In a joint statement, the two companies laid out their decentralized approach to contact tracing where the data is stored on the mobile device as opposed to in central government agencies. The tech giants were able to partner with privacy campaigners to put up a strong front against centralized tracing models which they argue could lead to government surveillance.

It is important when we examine technologies as more than objective and neutral objects, but rather as a collection of decisions made. While they might appear to be neutral or objective, they are in fact the result of decisions colored by politics, ethics and, often, ideology. We can see this in the approaches taken to contact tracing. The tension between a centralized versus a decentralized system speaks to the larger questions, namely: who is entitled to individuals’ information, and who can be trusted more? A corporation or a government agency? The various versions of the contact tracing apps are created in accordance to the answers to these questions. As such, the app is not simply a shiny neutral technology but rather a collection of political choices driven by power dynamics, politics and ethics – choices which must be questioned, even during a pandemic.

In a case such as this one, in which the power dynamic is skewed towards the private sector – as it often possesses the expertise and required resources to provide a necessary public resource essential to the health and safety of citizens – it is easy to see why so many governments adopted a decentralized approach. Google and Apple provide enormous expertise, and their partnership during the pandemic, in which time is of the essence, is indeed worth a lot.

Questions Worth Discussing

There were some countries that tried to resist a decentralized approach. At first, Germany opted for a centralized app system in which the government would gain access to the private information of users who opted into the app. However, the country quickly changed course to a decentralized system. France’s Digital Minister, Cédric O, has decided to maintain France’s centralized approach, telling POLITICO “that it should be up to governments, not companies, to determine what’s best to protect citizens from the global pandemic”. Based on POLITICO’s conversation with German government and industry officials, it seems as though the Germans agree that the discussion on the role of Silicon Valley’s expansion into the traditional jobs of the nation state are worth having, stating however that “we don’t need to have it amid a pandemic.”

It is clear that societies require quick and working solutions in these uncertain times. Yet the precedents set for public-private partnerships and the access granted to both the private and public sector during the pandemic need to be critically examined as they can impact our social contract with the public sector even in the post-pandemic world. Despite the temptation to delay asking the critical questions during an age where massive challenges require massive solutions, private partners, governments and their citizens should more than ever carefully assess these partnerships and ensure they are in alignment with each actors’ values. This is especially important in the case of governments that enter these partnerships, as the decisions made during this time can renegotiate the post-pandemic social contract.

This post is part of the States of Emergency project. Read more about it here.

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