Where policy goals can be achieved through regulation of private firms, private provision of public services allows governments to separate public policies from their political costs by shifting those costs to the private sector. Over the past three decades, financial decoupling has emerged as a regulatory strategy for promoting conservation, especially in the energy sector. Decoupling refers to the separation of a firm’s revenues from the volume of its product consumed, which allows companies to pursue resource efficiency free from financial risk. Similarly, when private firms provide public services, they separate public policies from their political costs. This political decoupling allows governments to pursue controversial policies while avoiding their attendant political risks. Applied to environmental policy, this theory implies that potentially unpopular conservation policies are more likely to be adopted and succeed when implemented through private firms. As an initial test of the theory, we analyze California water utilities and their responses to that state’s drought from 2015–2017. Analysis shows that, compared with those served by local government utilities, private utilities adopted more aggressive conservation measures, were more likely to meet state conservation standards, and conserved more water.
Buffered from the political risks of controversial policies and more responsive to regulatory sticks and carrots, private firms may be more effective than public agencies in implementing controversial public policies, whether or not they are more efficient.
Teodoro, Manuel P., Youlang Zhang & David Switzer. 2020. “Political Decoupling: Private Implementation of Public Policy,” Policy Studies Journal 48(2): 401-424.