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What’s the Secret? Confidentiality in Planning Infrastructure Using P3s

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Around the world, partnerships between the public and private sectors have become increasingly popular for delivering large public-use infrastructure such as roads and urban railways, water and waste treatment facilities, hospitals, and schools. The United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, Singapore, and Ireland have all created special programs to support and encourage the partnership model of project delivery.

A 2005 study by AECOM consultants found that since 1985 over 1,100 projects worth $450 billion worldwide have been delivered and financed through public/private partnerships. In the United States, a relative latecomer to this model of project delivery, 364 projects worth over $100 billion have been delivered or are planned for development (AECOM, 2005; Ashley, Bauman, Carroll, Diekmann, & Finlayson, 1998). Collaborations that involve the private sector in the design, building, financing, and operation phases (known as DBFO partnerships) have recently become common ways for governments to get help both raising funds for new public infrastructure and controlling the escalating construction costs and performance shortfalls that had been criticized in projects designed, financed, and operated by the public sector (Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, & Rothengatter, 2003; Pickrell, 1992). Proponents contend that DBFO public/private partnerships will lead to more accountable and transparent planning processes than publicly driven procurement models, since they better control for risk and deliver improved project outcomes (Grimsey & Lewis, 2004). A 2003 study by the United Kingdom’s Treasury Office found that DBFO public/private partnerships (called private finance initiatives in the United Kingdom) resulted in fewer cost overruns and time delays and better project performance than projects delivered directly by the state (HM Treasury, 2003).

Despite the claims of DBFO proponents, the DBFO partnership procurement model does require confidentiality at various stages of the planning process. Guidelines for structuring and planning projects using DBFO partnerships from the United States (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2006), the United Nations (2000), Canada (Private-Public Partnership Office, Industry Canada, 2003) and Ireland (Ireland Department of Finance, 2003) have each highlighted the need for confidentiality of commercially sensitive information in order to maintain the intellectual property of the bidders, the integrity of the competitive tendering process, and the public sector’s power to bargain for the best long-term value.

Studies of public/private partnerships to date have generally left issues related to uneven access to information, the particulars of deal negotiations, and the potential to achieve meaningful public consultation within the planning process largely unexamined (Miraftab, 2004; Sagalyn, 2007), although policymakers and planners of public/ private partnerships have acknowledged that issues of data disclosure and public engagement are significant. A briefing note posted on the U.S. Department of Transportation website (Hedlund & Chase, 2005) observed that project delivery using public/private partnerships requires a delicate balance: “On the one hand, disclosure of proposed projects is necessary for them to gain public legitimacy. On the other hand, the private sector will be unwilling to participate if certain information about them and their business secrets must be disclosed” (p. 9).

In this article, I examine whether the DFBO model of project delivery is congruent with public accountability. First I contrast the benefits of accountable and transparent public decision making with those of maintaining confi- dentiality in delivering projects using DBFO partnerships. Then I explore a case study of an urban rail line (the Canada Line), approved in 2004 to connect central Vancouver, BC with the local airport and the municipality of Richmond.1 The Canada Line case is unique because requests made under British Columbia’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act between 2004 and 2006 yielded many of the original technical, financial, and planning documents for the Canada Line, unlike other projects, for which these documents have not systematically been made available (World Bank, 2003). Using these documents, interviews with politicians and project planners, and media reports, I examine whether the information kept confidential in the Canada Line case matched the rationales put forward in the literature; whether publicly released summary documents accurately represented the information contained in the confidential documents; and how releasing less than complete information affected the public’s ability to be meaningfully involved in the Canada Line planning process. Finally, I draw conclusions from the Canada Line planning experience and identify recommendations to improve transparency and accountability as part of the DBFO project planning process.