The complexity and scale of environmental challenges often exceed the capacities of individual organizations. Partnerships provide a strategy to marshal the needed resources, skills, and reputational clout. But partnerships can be tricky. Stormwater management provides a case in point.
Roads, roofs, lawns, and other (nearly) impervious surfaces make rain a problem, preventing groundwater recharge, causing floods, carrying pollution that creates dead zones, and overwhelming water treatment plants. Green infrastructure is part of the solution.1,2 It uses bio-swales, retention ponds, tree canopy, and countless other designed natural features to hold and filter rain where it falls rather than letting it rush off to cause problems. The catch: designing, bidding, building, and maintaining infrastructure, green or gray, are difficult and expensive tasks.
As an example, consider Prince George’s County (PGC) Maryland, which borders Washington DC. To meet state regulatory goals associated with the Chesapeake Bay’s Total Maximum Daily Load requirements, the County must retrofit approximately 15,000 acres of impervious area by 2025. The estimated cost and timeline exceeded county budgets and regulatory deadlines.
Faced with these challenges, PGC sought innovative strategies for engaging private sector actors to manage the infrastructure design, permitting, construction, maintenance, and financing. The ongoing Clean Water Partnership emerged as a result. It is the first public-private partnership of its kind or scale. It uses an innovative model known as Community-Based Public-Private Partnership designed to help communities efficiently expedite the delivery of needed infrastructure improvements, deliver quantifiable community and economic impacts, increase engagement with citizens and residents, meet regulatory requirements, and create a return on investment for stormwater ratepayers in the community. In this instance, PGC partnered with a private company, Corvias Solutions, to manage the county’s green infrastructure retrofits, save time and money, generate local jobs, develop local businesses, and engage citizens.
The purpose of this paper is to introduce Solutions readers to this innovative approach to managing stormwater but, more importantly, to examine the nuances of successful partnerships. We want to promote practices that help readers successfully partner, not just for managing stormwater, but for solutions to other complex challenges readers face. Additional details about the Community-Based Public-Private Partnership model are documented elsewhere.3,4
Partnering is hard work (ask anyone in a relationship). Importantly, partnering is not an end; it is the means to an end. If you can solve a problem yourself, just do it. Partner only when it is worth the effort, as is likely when attempting to tackle large scale challenges, such water, climate, urbanization, or countless other pressing and complex challenges of the Anthropocene. Great resources exist that explain best practices of successful partnerships.5,6 We will illustrate several: innovation, governance, key roles, recognize partner strengths, establish shared goals, and create a learning culture.
Innovation: Partnerships often require and produce innovative thinking, which is clearly the case here. The traditional approach to siting, designing, constructing, inspecting and maintaining stormwater infrastructure is based upon the design-bid-build-bid-operate model of project delivery. This segmented approach limits the capacity of government agencies to efficiently and quickly build and maintain stormwater infrastructure, in part because the costs associated with each phase get inflated when contractors offer low bids to obtain contracts, but then use change orders due to unknown/unforeseen site conflicts, design errors, and various other problems. The integrated approach combines the siting, design, permitting, construction, maintenance, and financing. This more holistic view minimizes the need and cost of change orders. It also incentivizes designers and contractors at each phase, such as siting and construction, to consider and reduce costs at other phases that occur later in time, like operations, hence reducing overall cost and complexity. The partnership also innovated financial tools to speed project implementation and billing, provide access to private capital, and better manage risks.
Governance, Transparency, & Accountability: Partnerships need good governance structures that minimize misunderstandings by providing accountability and transparency. Accountability involves evaluating activities using mutually agreed upon standards, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and being responsive to sanctions from partners regarding those actions. Transparency requires that the evaluations be accurate, timely, accessible, and trusted.
Before the Clean Water Partnership was formed, the county issued a “request for qualifications,” seeking a company who could make a long term commitment, promote the county’s goals, and deliver and manage stormwater infrastructure. Corvias Solutions was selected. The county and Corvias then worked for 18 months to spell out the partnership’s governance in a Master Program Agreement and a Master Maintenance Agreement that details deliverables and expectations for the first 3 years of construction projects and the next 30 years of maintenance on those projects. Further, a specific Project Maintenance Plan is required for each project, describing Corvias’ annual and long- term maintenance needs and schedule. An oversight team composed of Corvias and the county staff provides further accountability with quarterly briefings to the County Council. Transparency and trust are enhanced by use of an independent, third party “Completion Certifier.”
Agreed upon metrics make accountability clear. Corvias only gets paid if completed projects produce specified outcomes. These governance agreements describe Corvias’ compensation structure, which is performance-based with a base fee for the successful implementation of all projects and an incentive fee for meeting all socio-economic goals. Performance is evaluated against milestones such as generation and delivery of retrofitted acres that generate “Impervious Area Credits” for the County and adherence to the scheduled construction timeline and budget. Socio-economic goals require that 30% of the labor be locally sourced and over 40% of the businesses be local, small, minority, women, veteran and disadvantaged businesses. The partnership committed to help local small businesses acquire necessary skills to compete for this work by removing bureaucratic barriers such as high levels of legal paperwork and long delays in payment.
Fill Key Roles: At different stages of the partnership, different roles become critical, including champions, brokers, managers, and external advocates.
Champions use their personal and professional reputations to promote the partnership’s credibility and profile during its early stages, giving potential partners confidence that investments of time and reputation will be worthwhile. PGC had several internal champions including the economic development officer, chief financial officer, county executive, and others. One key champion was Mr. Coffman, Deputy Director for the Department of the Environment. He advocated for a new way of designing and constructing green infrastructure that drove down costs, increased the pace of project implementation, and integrated design, construction, and maintenance efforts. Another key champion, Mr. Adam Ortiz, director of the County’s Department of Environment, also advocated for the project within the county government and with resident organizations because he felt the benefits of a novel partnership outweighed the risks of deviating from business as usual: “We determined that it is riskier to continue doing things the same way … versus trying something different.”
A broker acts on behalf of the partners to construct the partnership’s foundations by creating a compelling vision, clear expectations, transparent accounting, as well as making sure the necessary, mundane, practical, day-to-day activities get carried out. The broker often works at one of the partnering organizations. Greg Cannito, Managing Director with Corvias Solutions, performed this function. He kept parties engaged and on track during the negotiations that produced the Master Program and a Master Maintenance agreements.
Managers provides a steady, reliable presence to manage partnership projects and communications. Managers assimilate, winnow, record, and distribute information critical to keeping partners informed, engaged, and trusting the partnership. Once the partnership was brokered, Greg Cannito stayed on with Corvias to work alongside PGC staff to manage the partnership. They identify and select projects in a manner consistent with the public interest, manage contractors, ensure best practices, and ensure inspection and maintenance programs.
External advocates provide legitimacy, expertise, and perhaps funding needed to maintain partner engagement during the initial, tenuous stages. External advocates also provide a political counterbalance to external critiques who question or are threatened by the partnership. This partnership had many advocates. For example, Ms. Dominique Lueckenhoff, the Acting Director of the Water Protection Division of EPA Region 3 advocated a the community based partnership model, organized conferences on the topic, and helped PGC engage the necessary experts. Also, the county is fortunate to have located within its boundaries a nationally recognized NGO promoting green infrastructure and related technologies: Low Impact Development Center. Its principle and founder, Neil Weinstein, served as an external advocate providing a respected professional voice. Once the project began, religious institutions in the county also became important advocates and created a critical mass of early projects that demonstrated viability and credibility.
Respect partners’ differences and utilize their strengths: Partners, especially coming from different sectors (i.e., business, government, and civil society), may struggle to understand one another’s priorities, resources, procedures, strengths and risks. A business partner, for example, has skills for managing supply chains and labor while a government partner has the power to convene and tax. Partners from different sectors also worry about different risks, to reputation, autonomy, and resources.
PGC, as a government agency, brought regulatory authority and funding. They implemented a stormwater fee and bond program to generate funding. They also used their power of convening to focus attention and bring stakeholders to the table. In addition, PGC focused attention on jobs, economic development, environmental quality, and other community-oriented benefits over and above mere compliance with the Chesapeake Bay’s Total Maximum Daily Load requirements. However, by contracting with a private business to plan and organize its green infrastructure efforts, the county risked negative public perceptions that they were abdicating control over public goods and misusing public treasure.
Corvais brought traditional business strengths of project management, technical skills, and established supply chains. Corvais had public-private partnership experience and reputation built in California managing military housing. It built a reputation of being able to fix problems faster than the military paperwork was able to identify and report them. While much of the engineering for stormwater infrastructure is similar around the country, local conditions present unique design-build-operation challenges. Corvais could contract with local businesses to leverage local knowledge and networks to the advantage of the Clean Water Partnership.
Establish shared goals and mutual benefit. Clear, honest, robust discussion is needed to share, understand, and shape the partnership’s goals. To be sustainable, the partnership must provide specific benefits to each partner.
County officials needed to meet the county’s stormwater permit requirements and show they did so at a cost and quality better than traditional procurement would allow and at an acceptable risk. The Clean Water Partnership met these goals. It produced significant short-term savings, including quicker issuing and better enforcement of permits and more efficient administration of billing and finance. The county also befitted by transferring risk and expense of long term operations to Corvias, who assumed responsibility for long term maintenance. Additionally, the Clean Water Partnership made PGC a trendsetter among local jurisdictions, boosting its reputation. The partnership also employed County residents and local small, minority, veteran, disabled and woman owned businesses, as well as implemented a mentor-protégé program for the County workforce. Moreover, a cluster of local companies is emerging that can service surrounding counties implementing green infrastructure.
Corvias was motivated by the promise of steady funding that mitigates risks from variabilities in political and business cycles. They also sought to build a reputation in using infrastructure projects to provide community benefits, a market niche they see expanding nationally.
The US EPA was motivated to help the partnership succeed as a way to hasten compliance with its regulations and avoid the expense and political repercussions of fines and litigation. Currently, in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, municipal-led efforts are too slow and too expensive to meet water quality goals. The partnership is speeding implementation of green infrastructure and helping the county meet its clean water targets.
Create a Learning Culture: Successful, enduring partnerships learn from their successes and mistakes; that is, they learn by doing. Many activities of any partnership are novel and outside the scope of an organization (that is why the partnership was formed) and thus can be viewed as an opportunity for learning that enhances partners’ knowledge, skills, practice, and reputation. True collaboration transforms partners by helping each other grow.
The Clean Water Partnership is succeeding, in part, because both the County and Corvias are open to learning and adapting. The governance process with clear milestones and regular reporting created opportunity for the county and Corvias to adjust practices and refine expectations. County administrators remained flexible and open to adjustments. Corvias intentionally adopted an internal culture that explicitly recognizes the need to learn quickly and adapt. They had experience managing complex community partnerships and in managing large infrastructure projects but not green infrastructure and not in PGC. They needed to quickly learn not just the green infrastructure technologies appropriate for PGC, but also the marketing and sales approaches appropriate for PGC land owners.
Partnerships are difficult and risky but increasingly required to tackle wicked challenges of the Anthropocene such as rapid urbanization and changing climate that exceed the capacity of any single organization to solve. The Clean Water Partnership in Prince George’s County Maryland provides a case in point. Properly designed and carefully executed, the partnership benefits all parties and provides a better outcome at less cost in less time. Importantly, this case illustrates that public-private partnerships can recognize, produce, and monitor community benefits. In addition to installing functioning green infrastructure in less time and at lower cost, the ongoing partnership is producing local jobs, building local business capacity, and improving citizen engagement.
1. Talberth, J, Gray, E, Yonavjak, L & Gartner, T. Green versus gray: Nature’s solutions to infrastructure demands. Solutions 4, 40-47 (2013).
2. US Environmental Protection Agency. What is Green Infrastructure [online]. https://www.epa.gov/green-infrastructure/what-green-infrastructure.
3. Lueckenhoff, D & Brown, S. Public-private partnerships beneficial for implementing green infrastructure. Water Law & Policy Monitor [online] (2015) http://stormandstream.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/CBP3_BNA_Insights_A....
4. Smith, A, Cannito, G, Allender, B & Washington, D. Delivering assets and strengthening communities: A CBP3 primer. Water Online. [online] (2018). https://www.wateronline.com/doc/delivering-assets-and-strengthening-comm....
5. Tennyson, R. The Partnering Toolbook: An Essential Guide to Cross-sector Partnering (International Business Leadership Forum, 2003).
6. WWF & Coca-Cola. Building Partnerships [online]. http://wwfcocacolapartnership.com/building-partnerships/.