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The Governance of Service Delivery 10 Years On: Are we Really Learning the Lessons?

Simon O'Meally's picture
The blogs and events on service delivery ‘ten years on’ are timely and critical. There is now a wide consensus on the fundamental importance of service delivery for furthering poverty reduction.  As we try to forge a so-called ‘post-MDG consensus’, we would be wise to take stock of the past before lurching forward.
So I thought I would chip in to the debate on lessons learned. In my role supporting service delivery in South Asia, I have actually been asked, ‘what have we learnt?’  So I have been trying, but still failing, to come up with a satisfactory summary – not least because what constitutes a ‘lesson’ depends on the ‘evidence’ you value.  Here is my (subjective) work in progress:

Lesson 1: Governance really matters…duh! But how? The debate has moved from the acceptance that governance matters for delivery, towards a deeper understanding about how.  Perhaps the most important legacy of WDR 2004 was its popularization of the notion that governance relations – accountability, responsiveness and so on – are at the heart of service delivery problems.  Technical fixes or increased resource flows are rarely enough.  We now have a deeper – yet incomplete – understanding of the ‘how’; that is, the multiple governance characteristics that influence delivery outcomes (for instance here and here).
Lesson 2: The return of the ‘state’ (as if it somehow went away) and the end of ‘good governance’ as we knew it? The role of the state in development has been a focus of fierce debate for decades.  My take is that we have, to a degree, turned a corner.  A pretty strong evidence base underlines the central role of the state for fostering more inclusive development and for delivering critical basic and development-facilitating services.  The global financial crisis and experiences from South East Asia to Rwanda – or even at sub-national level in India – strengthen the case.  This has led to key learnings on the ingredients of ‘developmental states’.  Two takeaways in this broad area are worth highlighting:

  • First, the ‘good governance’ paradigm – rooted in attempting to transfer today’s OECD formal institutional frameworks to the South – has been lacking in helping incubate the actual types of institutional set-up that foster development in low-to-middle income environments.  Rather than gleaming transparency standards or ‘free’ markets, key aspects of developmental states include: (i) the presence of a political elite with a longer-term vision and who direct the state towards fostering broader-based economic growth and industrial expansion (including industrial policy); (ii) efforts to address market externalities and nurture developmental – rather than narrow – coalitions for economic accumulation; and, (iii) the effective implementation of some redistributive programs, such as social assistance.
  • Second, the tired ‘supply’/‘demand’ dichotomy that has dominated governance thinking has to go, once and for all. WDR 2004 (whether intended or not) inspired multiple citizen ‘demand’ initiatives to improve services.  We have learnt that citizen demand on its own is not always necessary or sufficient to improve service delivery outcomes, especially for the poor.  It needs to be embedded in a broader process of state-led change which shifts prevailing norms and builds pro-reform coalitions across state and society through a so-called ‘sandwich strategy’.
This all circles us back to the question of how to build developmental states… We still need to learn a lot about how such forms of state emerge and can be sustained.  Perhaps the most promising starting point lies in the critical political sociological tradition, which has brought a renewed focus on political settlements and the way in which the state is constituted by state-society relations. 
Lesson 3: Addressing inequality and exclusion dynamics must be at the center of service delivery reforms – not an add-on.  In the past decade, we learnt that traditional public sector reform programs had mixed results; and, thus, we needed to link core public sector reform (so-called upstream) with frontline service delivery impact (so-called downstream).  Now we also need to get better at focusing on the governance relations of inequality – a major binding constraint to pro-poor reform outcomes.  Poor people – by virtue of their limited access to basic necessities, services and powerful networks – face monumental constraints in effectively influencing delivery outcomes.  Citizen ‘demand’ or ‘local’ participatory initiatives – without inequality-mitigating interventions from higher (often state and political) powers – do not easily resolve this.  There are no quick win solutions; but there is a need to adopt a core focus on securing the entitlements, representation and access of poorer and marginalized groups in reform processes. 
Lesson 4: context and complexity matter, and we are getting (a little bit) better at dealing with this.  A critical mass of work now illustrates the challenge of transferring models across different contexts, and underlines the very complex (and non-linear) way in which development interventions can unfold over time.  This urges us towards a more adaptive, ‘learning-by-doing’ mindset.  Steps have been taken to address these issues via the growth of ‘good enough governance’ (or ‘best fit’) approaches, as well as through recognizing the pervasive role of informality in many contexts. In this view, service delivery reforms should support the emergence of ‘practical hybrids’; where modern bureaucratic standards combine with, or adapt to, locally-accepted cultures and practices to solve locally relevant problems.  But we still must do much more to flesh out these ‘new’ approaches in very practical ways. And there is still the counter-pressure to offer decontextualized ‘expert’ solutions; or to remain stuck in the old ‘mental models’ for supporting development. 
Lesson 5: from politics matters to working developmentally in the political ecosystem.  The aid industry appears to have come some way since being called the ‘anti-politics machine’.  ‘Political economy’ now fills the mainstream discourse.  As former WDR 2004 author notes, rather than just trying to fix service provide incentives, there is a need to – at least in parallel – shape the norms and incentives facing higher-level bureaucrats and politicians.  Yet translating such insights into deep change in the aid system has proven challenging.  This is in part because of internal donor incentives and tricky dilemmas about the legitimate role of donor organizations in this arena.  Work on the provision of ‘arms-length’ aid could be one potential way forward.  In any case, to paraphrase a paraphrasing : we cannot go around politics, we cannot go over or under it…we will have to go through it.
All these lessons are not necessarily new but they are worth re-emphasizing because there is still a gap between what we say and what we do.  As pressures will always remain to talk up success or cherry pick ‘failures’, we need to be bold enough to take stock of the more unpalatable lessons.  Now is the time to build a new framework, and practice, for inclusive service delivery that fundamentally absorbs these lessons. 
It is, in fact, the next 10 years that will really tell us what we have learnt from the past 10. 

Photo by Bart Verweij via World Bank Photo Collection, available here
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Submitted by Thaneshwar Bhusal on

I have been arguing that Public Sector Reforms are missing to reform the Public Service Delivery Governance (PSDG) for couple of years. Your 3rd point further justifies that Public Sector Reforms, including the strategies like the New Public Management, are severely undermining to address the necessity to modernize, and thereby further democratize the notion of PSDG at the local level. Thank you very much for taking this debate ahead.

Thanks for your comment. I am glad that you found the blog a good contribution in moving this debate forward. I agree that we need to move beyond the New Public Management paradigm, and I am looking forward to everyone's ideas on how we could/should do this.

Submitted by Marco Larizza on

Hi Simon,

thanks so much for sharing these inspiring lessons. New or not, they are worth spreading as they raise important questions for which we are still looking for credible answers!

Looking back at the past 10 years, it looks like we have now realized how useless and harmful is to practice development by trying to fix synthoms, often ignoring systemic political factors which are at the core of the matter. Political scientists have long theorized about the need to 'bring the State back in' to understand why some countries are rich, and other are poor. As you point out, we know seem to appreciate that fostering elites pacts and pro-poor coalitions (again another lessons from political science!) are the pre-condition for any (externally-promoted) development effort to take root in often unequal societies.

The challenge remain to better articulate how to 'work evelopmentally in a political ecosystem'. Perhaps even more challenging - and disturbing - is the idea that the most critical factors that foster development are precisely the ones where us (the World Bank... and beyond) have little, if any, influence. The sooner we understand it, the sooner we can embrace the 'radical shift' that Easterly and others are advocating for. Our own survival - and the fate of the poor - depends on this.

Very much look forward to the next 10 years lessons!

Marco, thanks for your excellent feedback and points - glad you thought the blog raises some important points. You, too, raise some fundamental points - especially about donors' sphere of influence. I agree - we need to think about this in more granular, operational terms as we move towards 'working more developmentally in diverse political ecosystems'. I am looking forward to collaborating with you and all others in the development space on these critical issues!

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