Public-Private Cooperation in the Department of Defense: A Framework for Analysis and Recommendations for Action

By Wells, Linton, II; Bendett, Samuel | Defense Horizons, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Public-Private Cooperation in the Department of Defense: A Framework for Analysis and Recommendations for Action


Wells, Linton, II, Bendett, Samuel, Defense Horizons


In 2010, a National Defense University (NDU) research project called TIDES (1) (Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support) was invited to partner with a company to produce a tradeshow about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions and related capabilities. Despite senior-level Department of Defense (DOD) guidance to pursue public-private partnerships, DOD attorneys told TIDES managers to reject the agreement. Differing legal interpretations of the word partner generated concern that the proposed partnership could create an impermissible perception of government endorsement of a private company. Even though it would have advanced the government's mission and promoted efficiency, a variety of obstacles scuttled the proposed cooperation.

Such limitations on public-private engagement are often reported at combatant commands and raise questions about what policies and activities are appropriate. (2) The examples cited in this paper collectively represent a broad landscape of situations in which well-intentioned people pursued cooperation between a DOD organization and private entities yet encountered serious obstacles. These examples generated provocative and interesting questions about how best to conduct public-private cooperation (PPC) and these questions led to a diverse array of insights into the nature of PPC, which in turn evolved into a collection of far-ranging recommendations.

This paper is intended to promote PPC in DOD. (3) The opening section articulates the imperative for PPC. It then proposes an analytical framework that features four broad categories along a continuum of formality: contractual arrangements, well-defined standards and protocols, broad frameworks for interaction, and emergent or undefined situations. The next section presents examples from each of the four categories, including how the collaborators overcame the challenges they faced and practical implications for future PPC efforts. The paper ends with key observations and recommended next steps for further research and reform.

The Imperative to Cooperate

PPC has proved to be effective at the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). (4) DOD leaders are expressing interest in implementing parallel approaches. PPC is intended to further policy objectives, enhance U.S. operational capabilities, reduce costs, gain access to nonmilitary expertise or assets, or build greater capacity in partners. As DOD adapts to meet evolving roles and missions in an unpredictable and complex world amid fiscal constraints, the expertise and involvement of the private sector, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), research institutions, and academia will be essential.

The National Security Strategy (NSS), Quadrennial Defense Review, Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, National Defense Strategy, and several joint publications and DOD directives emphasize partnerships between the government and the private sector. (5) A notable study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed that the private sector has appeared with increasing frequency in each NSS since 2002, reaching no fewer than 44 times in the 2010 version. (6) The NSS notes that America's "ability to apply the ingenuity of our public and private sectors toward the most difficult foreign policy and security challenges of our time will help us protect our citizens and advance U.S. national security priorities." (7)

Yet efforts to implement public-private arrangements often fall short, especially in DOD. Proponents of PPC face significant hurdles establishing or sustaining cooperation. For example, Admiral James Stavridis and his colleague Evelyn Farkas, two path-breaking practitioners of PPC at both U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) and U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), observed in a recent paper three types of systemic challenges: legal and regulatory restrictions, lack of trust, and lack of proper institutionalization of public-private efforts. …

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