The British Council and Public-Private Partnerships

November 7, 2010

There seems to be some interest in the role of public-private partnerships in PD at the moment so it’s worth pointing to some issues that have come out of recent experience with the British Council.


A little background is necessary. The British Council is an odd organization in that it simultaneously operates as part of the state (technically a non-departmental public body)  as a public corporation and as a charity.   Funding comes from a grant from the Foreign Office, from income generated by providing services to the public (mostly English language teaching and conducting examinations on behalf of other organizations) and from project funding from government departments, and other private a public bodies.  Although the BC is usually thought of a ‘cultural diplomacy’  organization it actually describes itself as being in the business of ‘cultural relations’ – which seems to mean whatever it wants it to mean.  In the UK lexicon public diplomacy is something that the FCO does


The outcome of the UK reviews of PD in the middle of the decade was a requirement for the BC to take on a more strategic focus which meant refocusing resources geographically towards the Middle East and Pakistan and towards emerging economies.  Over the last few years the priority programme areas have been ‘intercultural relations’ -trust building and conflict reduction, ‘ creative and knowledge economy ‘  and ‘climate change’.


The BC experience has pointed to two problems.  Firstly, the hybrid nature of the organization where it is both promoting British education and providing advisory services and language teaching for a fee creates a conflict of interest with commercial organizations who provide similar services.    Indeed it can be argued that the fact that the organization has substantial quasi commercial businesses will tend to distort priorities.  When you first look at the structure of the BC you immediately wonder why it appears to have so many offices in some countries (eg Spain) before you realize that this is due to the fact that it runs an extensive network of language schools.

The other problem is that the strategic refocusing has shown that companies who may be willing to sponsor traditional cultural diplomacy activities such as the visit of a British orchestra to a major capital are much less willing to sponsor conflict reduction activities in less prestigious environments. A National Audit Office report in 2008 pointed to the fact that some BC offices had failed to raise any sponsorship at all.  The situation in 2008 may reflect a position mid reorganization and may have been addressed.  But it does suggest a difficulty if public-private partnerships become a performance target – organizations will be pulled into activities that generate partnership and sponsorships even at the cost of their strategic focus.


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