Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 17, 2013

Phil Power: New model is public-private partnerships


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — Believe it or not, there is good news out there.

The news from Lansing may be, at the very best, mixed, and Washington had, even before the shutdown, fallen into a vast sinkhole of dysfunction, fueled by partisan and ideological wars.

Still, it may sooth the mind and rekindle a little optimism to consider these Michigan success stories:

n The Kalamazoo Promise, funded by local wealthy families and facilitated by civic consensus, has literally changed the lives of hundreds by providing college tuition to those who graduate from Kalamazoo public schools. Along the way, it has strengthened the school system, firmed up the local housing market and provided a rallying call for a community under stress.

n Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize has just finished handing out nearly half a million dollars to hundreds of artists whose work graced local streets and now draws hundreds of thousands to a thriving city every September. A local, state or federal government program? Nope. It’s all done through private, local philanthropy.

Detroit may well be ground zero of municipal failure and incompetence. But many institutions that used to be creatures of the city - Cobo Center, Eastern Market, Detroit Historical Museum - have been off-loaded to non-public entities — and are thriving. Larger institutions - the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Zoo — remain technically city-owned, but are managed, funded, operated and run by separate nonprofits.

These examples highlight a significant movement quietly gaining ground under the surface of both our state and our community governmental institutions.

For generations, we assumed that various institutions of government were properly responsible for design and competent to manage activities aimed at the general good of our people. But increasingly, that’s sadly no longer the case.

Instead, what has grown up over the years at the core of many public bodies (which are all, to some extent, political institutions) are layers of encrustation by interests that tilt public policy and government activities toward their particular parochial benefit.

Here are a few examples:

n Public sector unions have, in some places, extracted generous and ultimately unaffordable pay packages from city councils and school boards whose members are elected largely by union votes.

n The start of the Michigan school year was delayed by the Legislature until after Labor Day explicitly to benefit the tourist industry, not kids or their parents.

n And Detroit’s economic downfall certainly hasn’t been eased by continuing shortsighted pressure, as in the latest demand to keep squeezing an extra annual “13th check” out of the city’s underfunded public employee pension fund.

n Political corruption has hurt too, best typified by ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (2002-2008) and his infamous pay-to-play regime.

Sadly, the Great Recession that began in 2008 multiplied and intensified these tendencies. As resources became scarcer, competition among various interests increased.

Increasingly, it isn’t just cynical reporters who are sniffing out hidden interests that benefit from public initiatives.

Today, more and more, the public is raising basic questions about the design, direction and working of programs we once assumed were best left in the hands of government bodies - bodies often publicly elected and, hence, by definition vulnerable to the claims (and cash contributions) of special interests.

So isn’t it time we start recognizing that other sectors in our society — philanthropy, non-profits, even the business community — should be playing increased roles in programs for the good of all?

Isn’t it time we started looking hard at public-private partnerships as a new model for delivery of services to our citizens?

Today, indeed, the philanthropic community is pouring millions into restructuring and re-tasking many lagging public institutions.

Michigan’s foundations, great and small, are heavily engaged: Kellogg, Mott, Kresge, Dow, Hudson-Webber, Skillman, McGregor, among others.

And civic-minded businesses, often encouraged by Business Leaders for Michigan, are playing increasing roles: DTE, PVS Chemicals, Quicken Loans, Masco, Consumers Energy, Steelcase and the auto companies, to name a few.

The public turf is no longer the exclusive playing field of public and political institutions.

This week, the Council of Michigan Foundations is holding its annual conference in Grand Rapids, built around the theme of new and creative partnerships.

I cannot imagine a better time to launch a serious discussion about how the charitable and non-profit sectors can plan to increasingly help guide what used to be left in the hands of the politicians.

Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By e-mail at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.