What is the Army Reserve’s Private Public Partnership Initiative?

June 9, 2014

Lieutenant General Jeff Talley, Chief of the U.S. Army Reserve, is spending a huge chunk of his time these days talking about something most people outside the military (and likely many inside of it) have probably never heard of: The Private Public Partnership initiative (or P3i, of course). War on the Rocks was recently invited to participate in a conference call with several other outlets that cover, write about, and discuss military and defense-related topics, during which General Talley introduced P3i, explained how it works, and described his vision for it.

BLUF: As a new initiative still in a very fluid stage of development, it’s difficult to define exactly what it is. It isn’t sexy, it isn’t high-profile (although Talley is working to change that), and there remain some open questions as to how it will operate. It’s also novel, forward-looking, and well-suited to an era in which each service and component will be forced to redefine itself to some degree as we complete the drawdown in Afghanistan and transition to a peacetime force.  In short, it’s about partnering the Army Reserve with private companies for cooperative projects that yield benefits to both parties and provide vital training and experience for reservists.

So how does it work? Given its name, you would be forgiven for assuming that P3i is geared toward supporting the reservists who straddle the public-private divide as both civilians and soldiers. There’s an element of that, to be sure, but it’s much more comprehensive. There are already laws in place to protect against job loss as a result of reserve duty, offices whose mandate is to “promote cooperation and understanding between Reserve Component Service members and their civilian employers,” and a plethora of programs to help match reservists with job opportunities. There might well be room for improvement in this area, but P3i does not set out to pursue it.

So insofar as this is a part of P3i’s mandate, it isn’t really all that noteworthy. What, then, is the initiative intended to do? According to Talley’s vision for the program, it has four goals:

  1. Produce a better trained and more ready force;
  2. Foster a more integrated public-private sphere;
  3. Provide a means of saving money for taxpayers; and
  4. Offer an opportunity to generate profit for private partners.

This last point sounds controversial, but if the program is to be a success, it will be vital.

Talley described it a partnership that can help both sides: the Army Reserve and each private organization with which it partners. It will, of course, also benefit the citizen-soldiers who take part, by providing skills training and experience that will aid either their civilian or military careers, or both. But ultimately, its strength centers on the fact that it encourages mutually beneficial partnerships. This is also what makes it particularly innovative, and really, kind of interesting. For more than a decade of war, the nature of the relationship between the Army Reserve and private companies has revolved to a considerable degree around sacrifice by the latter. Keeping an employee who is regularly gone for training can be difficult, and doing so for a worker who is gone for a year or more during a deployment is often asking a lot. So if the Army Reserve can go to a company and offer a relationship that doesn’t require sacrifice, and in fact produces tangible benefits, the company is likely to be willing to listen.

And as Talley tells it, they are listening. Several major companies have already signed up: GE Healthcare, Fox Sports, and Major League Baseball are among them. Coca-Cola, though, is perhaps one of the most interesting partners. Coca-Cola is the largest private employer in Africa. The Army Reserve has partnered with the company, along with U.S. Agency for International Development and the non-profit U.S. Water Partnership to develop various water projects in Africa. Each partner brings to bear the resources with which they are well endowed. For the Army Reserve, that’s citizen-soldiers trained to provide the types of services integral to the project. But equally, it is a vital opportunity to provide training and experience for those reservists.

The program isn’t without challenges. “This is hard,” Talley said. “It’s different from other programs. We’re charting new territory.”

So what is P3i? It’s sort of everything. But as we withdraw forces from Afghanistan, transition to a peacetime military, and face new and growing budgetary constraints, that is the sort of thinking that’s going to be needed. It can’t compete for attention with high-priced weapons procurement or debates about strategy. And it will need a concerted effort to make it succeed. But it has an ambitious backer in Talley, who is clearly energized and is making this a priority during his tenure as Chief of the Army Reserve. Will it live up to his expectations? It’s too soon to tell. But it is in fact an innovative program, and he seems determined to maximize its impact.

 

John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.

 

Photo credit: General Frank Grass