This paper examines the similarities and differences between public and private ownership of water utilities, including variations such as corporatisation. In any utility where the asset owner and the asset operator are the same, there are pressures to reduce operations and maintenance costs and capital expenditure to maximise returns. The authors argue that this is the case irrespective of whether such returns are to private shareholders or dividends to government. On the other hand, where the asset owner and the asset operator are separate entities with a clearly defined contractual interface, it is not possible to increase returns by reducing operations and maintenance standards, presuming a properly constructed contract. This is because the performance standards are clearly stipulated in the contract with payment reductions applying for non-performance. Such a model can be put in place irrespective of whether the asset owner is a private company or a public utility. The paper examines the profit incentive applying to private and public sector organisations in models where:

  • the asset owner and the asset operator are the same organisation;

  • models where the asset owner and the asset operator are separate organisations, with the service delivery performance governed by a clearly defined contractual interface.

The paper shows why the drivers governing the behaviour of public sector and private sector owners are similar, and how the separation of asset owner and asset operator can be used to ensure that service delivery standards are achieved at the lowest cost, whilst providing full transparency to shareholders, regulators and customers alike. The paper also reviews actual comparative data on service quality and performance under a number of ownership and contractual models, and draws conclusions on the effectiveness of the various asset owner/operator models in terms of service delivery performance and costs.