Debate as a Teaching Methodology

Experiences Learned from the Public Private Partnerships Debate

As part of the required curriculum at the Brandt School, every student must choose 2 out of 5 specializations. Under the specialization module “International Affairs”, students have the opportunity to enroll in the course “Design, Implementation and Evaluation of Social Policies around the World”. Under Dr. Aragón’s guidance, students engage in Oxford style debates around the most pressing issues of the public policy agenda worldwide.

During the Winter Semester 2016-2017, I, along with fellow colleagues from four different countries, had the opportunity to debate about Public Private Partnerships (PPP´s). The team was in charge of supporting the motion: “The penitentiary system can be improved through Public-Private Partnerships (PPP´s)”.

While the group was preparing for the debate, we tried to keep in mind something which is very obvious, but often forgotten: when you have to simulate real life, you really need to act as if it was real life. This means not only paying attention to details, but also anticipating the opponent’s strategy. In practice, for example, it is always advisable that you provide your team members with either name badges or table names, dress up properly and distribute materials for the audience. Likewise, before the debate, one should try to elaborate as much as possible on the opponents’ potential strategies.

Regarding the debate itself, there is neither a secret nor trick capable of ruining the best strategy: preparation. Therefore, one should not save efforts to prepare for the debate; research databases, specialized journals and newspapers with a good reputation, such as The Economist and Financial Times are useful sources of information.

I should also mention that a formal presentation is key for a good debate performance. Although, one must have good arguments, you should never fail in presenting them for the public. Likewise, destabilizing the opponents proved very helpful in clarifying a point to the attendees.. Teasing, answers based in sound arguments and tricky questions are all good weapons against an adversary.

Regarding the motion defended, some points were common ground for both teams: prisons are supposed to rehabilitate people in conflict with the Law by offering good facilities, professional education, health and psychological support; some governments decided to take action (by using PPP’s) in order to improve the penitentiary system, this is a reality; there is a clear economic debate involving costs and an underlying debate involving the structure of governance.

Besides the economic argument, my team arguments (governance related) were:

  • Noncore-activities should be contracted out, as long as a particular entity is able to deliver the service
  • Prisons managed by companies are inmate’s rehabilitation role models
  • Best practices in the prison system are related to a company-like management model

On the one hand, there are activities (selection of the inmates, decision of the type of facility to be contracted out etc.) which are and should remain State activities. They have to do with the functioning of the State itself and the functions derived from the exercise of power legitimated by citizens. On the other hand, there are services which may be contracted out, such as medical treatment, psychological treatment and drug treatment. These activities don’t require any democratic legitimacy to be performed. It is as simple as the floor must be clean.

PPP’s require the participation of the State, ranging from overseeing the company activities to offering services which should not be contracted out through an agreement. Actually, a contract is the heart of a PPP, as the contract establishes duties for both parties, penalties, payments, forms for execution of the activities and so on. The most appropriate contract design depends on the actual circunstances (legislation, society, economy, tradition, politics), one size-fits-all contracts are highly inadvisable.

The adversaries offered an argument based on Anglo-Saxon experiences, arguing that governments are shutting down private prisons. However, they didn’t pay attention to the overall picture, which means that legislative changes led to a decrease in the number of inmates, consequently less need of prisons, both public and private. In reality, they could mention that the kind of problems faced by the penitentiary system are somehow related to broader problems like international drug dealing, the rising power of organized crime inside prisons and so on.

Dealing with the second argument, empirical findings suggest an increase in quality in France, while in Brazil, findings showed that public-private agreements have resulted in cost reductions and, at the same time, an increase in the quality of services provided. Data proved that in private run prisons there is more order and security and less tension between different stakeholders. In the exact figures, private run prisons may offer up to 10 times more health treatment and up to 20 times more legal counseling, which in turn contributes to faster legal processes. There is also eveidence showing that private run prisons consume less water and energy. (Cabral & Saussier, 2013)

A serious discussion on the topic must not ignore the third argument: are the State’s administrative rules able to improve the management of prisons? The taxpayers wait for this answer.



CABRAL, S.; SAUSSIER, S. Organizing Prisons through Public-Private Partnerships: A Cross-Country Investigation. Brazilian Administration Review, 10(1), 100-120, 2013.


Follow Arivaldo Santos de Souza:

Arivaldo de Souza was trained as a lawyer and a legal researcher in both Brazil and the USA. After holding appointments in the non-profit sector, academia/think tank and government in Argentina, Brazil and the USA, de Souza joined the Brandt School as Master of Public Policy student. He is specializing in European Public Policy and International Affairs and contributes to "The Bulletin" as an editor for the Alumni and Career and Policy Analysis categories.