The politics of service delivery

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Routes of accountabilityThe WDR 2004 report certainly puts politics centre stage. Ten years on, the picture remains the same: where there’s any form of accountability relationship, there is some form of politics. A key insight of the WDR 2004 report was the trio of accountability relationships for service delivery and demand for improvement involving citizens, service providers and the government.

The politics can travel in different ways: through the ‘long route’ of citizens’ involvement in national or local politics to pressure government to deliver services; or through the ‘short route’ of citizens engaging directly with service providers. Ten years on, at the recent Conference to mark the anniversary of WDR 2004, this framework for conceptualising the politics of service delivery – and its famous diagram – is still used today.  However, the relationship of politics and service delivery doesn’t begin and end with a diagram. Over the two days of the conference, some important – and challenging – questions about the ongoing relationship between politics and service delivery were raised.

First, ‘politics is part of the solution, not just the problem’. There was only one developing country politician in attendance, which might be surprising for this kind of conference. Perhaps they thought they should stay away, given that for some people working in the field, ‘politics’ is the thing that ‘gets in the way’ of effective delivery. Fortunately, the conference delegates were wiser than this. First, they recognised that if politics is part of the problem of service delivery it has to be part of the solution as well. Second, politicians will be the leaders of this change. Finding ways and reasons to align their incentives with service delivery through accountability relationships is vital for improvements. And there is no easy way out: countries that fail to deliver public services will also fail to deliver effective private markets. As a result, there is no easy option to ‘get around the politics’ by simply privatising service provision.

Second, ‘make services work for the middle-class – to help the poor’. The WDR 2004 focused primarily on poor people and their access to services. This fits easily – and uncontroversially - with the poverty focus of the World Bank and its supporters. However, some voices from the conference pushed back against this, for two different ‘political’ reasons. As a matter of political right, the middle-classes in developing countries (who are still poor by our standards) should also have access to good quality public services. More importantly, the way to make politics and service delivery align is to get the articulate and influential middle-classes engaged in service delivery. Services for poor people are often poor services, so making public services a political issue for the middle-class might, paradoxically, may do more to make them work for the poor as well.

Third, ‘the politics of donors’. never missing a chance to bite the hand that feeds (most of) them, delegates also discussed the role of external actors in advising policy makers and implementers. In reality, there are often two parallel ‘political’ processes going on when donors try to help developing countries deliver services: the politics of that country’s public services, and the politics of what donors can and will do to help. There was broad skepticism about any notion that donors have a strong influence on the politics of public services. Certainly, it was noted that aid is declining in importance compared to other flows of money, and this has radically reduced the number of countries in which donors have any real influence. Some saw a reduction in external involvement in policy making as a good thing.

Fourth, ‘The politics of behaviour.' The WDR 2004 and other studies have focused on the politics of incentives – why people behave the way they do based on rational decisions to maximise their welfare. Several voices at the conferences noted that time – and behavioural economics – have moved on. Increasingly, we should focus on the role of social norms and individual behaviour in shaping development outcomes, moving away from the concept of a ‘rational actor’. Indeed, the forthcoming 2015 WDR on Mind and Culture will focus on precisely these issues. This has the potential to generate a radical shift in the debate away from the politics of rational actors, and towards the politics of actual human behaviour, and how this might affect service delivery. The conference raised interesting new research that suggested one way to improve services would be to encourage the ‘selecting in’ of intrinsically motivated people into public service, rather than focusing on the usual policy ideas of pay and workforce reform to raise effectiveness.

As these events often do, more questions were raised than answered, although there was no constituency suggesting that politics and service delivery operate separately. The event certainly showed that one of the key insights from the original 2004 report is still valid: politics matters in delivering services, whether you take the long or the short route to get there.


Bryn Welham

Research Fellow, Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure

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