Research on restoring trust in collaborations

Key findings from an award-winning study on restoring trust in public-private partnerships

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We already know many ways to build trust in public-private partnerships (PPPs), but we know relatively little about how to restore that trust when it is broken. The nature of PPPs and the environment in which they operate means that trust is often betrayed. It is therefore both important and useful to fill this gap in our knowledge. This article outlines the main findings of an award-winning master's thesis titled Trust repair strategies in public-private partnerships and their potential for success.

During her research from May to July 2022, the researcher interviewed 15 public and private sector professionals involved in PPP projects, ranging from major infrastructure works to smaller-scale real estate projects. She also conducted a central case study on the Kromhout barracks DBFMO in Utrecht. This research revealed a range of trust restoration strategies that have been used to address trust breaches in PPP. Using the data collected, the researcher identified successful and unsuccessful strategies, and the conditions under which they were implemented.

Three main categories of strategies were identified: structural solutions (including workforce solutions, new informal processes, new rules and cultural learning), verbal statements (statements, apologies and expressions of frustration) and structured events (mediator/coaching sessions and team building days). An example of this is the following: the study found that introducing new informal processes in the wake of an alleged breach of trust can help restore trust. Such processes could include, for example, setting up a new procedure for handling new requests from the public partner (with an emphasis on prioritization and realistic timetables) or regular informal discussion of certain topics.

One thing that stood out in the researcher's conversations with PPP professionals is that most stakeholders are very receptive to efforts to rebuild partner trust. Second, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to restoring trust in PPPs – the solution must be tailored to the problem, specific stakeholder relationship and context.Thirdly, whatever is done to restore trust, if it promotes greater transparency between the partners, it is likely to be beneficial. Also, if both partners decide together what action to take (ie the solution is mutually worked out), the problem is more likely to be solved and trust between the partners is restored.

In general, those surveyed had many common experiences; they had similar frustrations, but also similar hopes for what their partnerships could achieve if these frustrations were acknowledged and overcome. This research highlighted that there is no easy way to restore trust in partnerships, but efforts to do so can have far-reaching consequences beyond resolving the initial breach of trust.


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Urban resilience and transformation | engaged research | HEI Development

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