Jonathan Karpoff at the University of Washington has found that private 19th century Arctic and Antarctic exploration was more effective than public exploration. Even though government expeditions were larger and better funded, private expeditions were more productive, and at lower loss of life. Karpoff looked at the records of 92 public and private expeditions.
Karpoff�s article, "Public versus Private Initiative in Arctic Exploration: The Effects of Incentives and Organizational Structure" was published in the Journal of Political Economy (JPE) in 2001 (109(11):38-78). You can find an early draft at Karpoff's web site: "Public versus Private Initiative in Arctic Explortion". Daniel Benjamin has a summary of Karpoff�s findings on the web site of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC): Arctic Expeditions of the 19th Century.
Karpoff compared public and private 19th Century Arctic exploration efforts, and found that the private sector did better: "...despite greater funding, public expeditions achieved fewer major Arctic prizes, suffered greater losses, and performed more poorly than private expeditions." (pg 63). Why was this the case?
He outlines three reasons: "...compared to private expeditions, many public expeditions (i) had unmotivated and unprepared leaders, (ii) had poor leadership structures, and (iii) were slow to adapt to new information." (p 63). Ultimately he finds these grounded in incentive problems.
Leader preparation and motivation: His review of the 92 private and public cases he collected indicated that the leaders of private expeditions were generally better motivated and prepared. With respect to motivation, private explorers generally wanted to be there. "Even relatively unprepared private leaders had strong desires for Arctic exploration.....Many leaders of government expeditions, in contrast, had little direct knowledge of, or interest in, Arctic exploration." (p 63) The leader of a British navy expedition in the 1870s "...went north not because of any particular interest in the job, but rather because he had been appointed and he sought promotion..." (p 63-64)
Leadership structure: Leadership structure - specifically the division of responsibilities between the persons who started a project and those who carried it out - appears to have been important. Initiation and execution functions appear to have been combined much more often in private than public expeditions. "...the persons initiating and organizing public expeditions actually led them only 25.7 percent of the time. For private expeditions, in contrast, the percentage is 77.2 percent." (p 64) The impact on incentives: "Because they did not actually go on the trips, the organizers of public expeditions faced few of the negative consequences of poor planning or erroneous theories." (p 64).
Karpoff places this next point under use of information, but maybe it belongs under leadership structure as well. He notes that, "Private expedition leaders appear to have adopted nonhierarchical organizations more frequently than public expedition leaders. Rae, Kennedy, Nansen, and Amundsen, for example, all solicited and used information from their crew, delegated some decision authority to their men, and participated in menial tasks. This is in contrast to the strict hierarchical structures maintained on many government expeditions..."(p 69).
Adaptation and learning: Private expeditions, possibly because of the experience and motivation of the leadership and the non-hierarchical leadership structure, were quicker to make use of new information and new techniques than public expeditions. Private expeditions were quicker to make use of native clothing, snow houses, dog sleds, good dog sled design, small party size, scurvy reducing diets, and valuable geographic information. To take one issue, snow houses: "A skilled traveler, Rae claimed, could construct a snow house large enough for five men within one hour. The snow house could be used again on the return journey and was warmer than the canvas tents most explorers carried...All the expeditions in my sample that used snow houses extensively were privately organized and funded. The others relied on canvas tents and cloth sleeping bags, which would freeze stiff with condensed water vapor." (p 66)
Karpoff links these various problems to the issue of incentives. "...many of the public expeditions' problems lay with the poorly aligned incentives of key decision makers. Expedition leaders were appointed by senior officials who were motivated by political objectives in addition to expedition success and did not suffer severe consequences for expedition failures. Many leaders themselves were motivated by the promise of promotion, which accompanied but did not require success as explorers....Poor incentives could affect not only an expedition's leadership but also its provisions and the selection of its crew. As a result, even skilled leaders were rendered ineffective by governmental control of important decisions... Conflicting incentives impeded the flow of information to expedition leaders. The official accounts of many British naval expeditions, for example, downplayed the incidence and risk of scurvy, partly as a means to safeguard public support for the expeditions." (p 69)