Greasing the wheels of public service delivery

There should be many reasons for governments to improve public services like water, healthcare and sanitation; these services make citizens happy and politicians popular. But too often, conflicting systems, confusion about roles, perverse incentives and other constraints block desired improvements. What, if anything, can aid agencies do to help?

A team from the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) identified four cases - a Tanzanian water project, a Ugandan governance programme, and, in Sierra Leone, a governance initiative and health worker programme - in which outside assistance was believed to have made a positive difference. The projects were then examined to see what they had done right.

These were not big-picture projects. Although fundamentally about governance, most of them stuck to practical, low-level interventions. The Tanzanian project mapped water-points and their use, and coached councillors and local committee members about their rights and responsibilities. The Ugandan programme similarly sensitized people about their rights. In Sierra Leone, one programme provided advisory teams to a handful of government ministries, and another established a system of rewards and sanctions to improve health worker attendance, supplying - in the words of one ODI report - “the grease that keeps the system running.”

Heidi Tavakoli, the lead researcher, said, “Aid projects tend to want to start by revising the regulatory framework within which they and governments have to work. But much less attention is given to getting existing systems working a bit more effectively. All these activities largely focused on bridging the gap between what’s on paper and what actually happens in practice.”

Opportunity knocks

All the interventions took advantage of unique windows of opportunity.

In Sierra Leone in 2007, the government had just been voted out of office, in part because voters were frustrated by its lack of progress in improving service delivery. The new president, Ernest Bai Koroma, promised that within six months all young children and all pregnant and lactating women would get free health care.

The British Department for International Development (DFID) was prepared to help fund this programme, but wanted to ensure its money would not go to absentee, or “ghost”, workers. The political urgency of the pledge gave DFID leverage to insist on reforms.

In Tanzania, youth groups were becoming increasingly vocal about the local government’s poor service provision. Media coverage on the issue was proliferating, and rivals to the dominant political party had begun to emerge. Suddenly, officials and politicians had more incentives to make the water supply system work.

At a meeting in London to discuss the ODI research, attendees debated how best to spot and exploit these windows of opportunity.

It is not easy, said Andy Ratcliffe, from the African Governance Initiative. “We have risk registers for projects. In a fit of wonkery, we thought perhaps we ought also to have an opportunity register, but we found that was very, very difficult.”

Marcus Manuel, of ODI, said maintaining a local presence is essential. “If you are not there already, if you are not there for the long-term, you won’t spot the window of opportunity when it occurs. And if you are not there with some money, the window will have closed again by the time you have raised the funds!”


Because these opportunities often involve politics, some are concerned that aid groups’ interventions - and successes - could hand one side or another a political advantage.

But Rinus van Klinken, the acting country director in Tanzania for SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, which was involved in the water project, told IRIN he was not sure this mattered.

“First of all, services need to be delivered. But also voters - citizens - need to see the connection between those services being delivered and the people in charge. That may lead to change, and it may lead to conservation. But if we assist politicians to deliver, I don’t have any problem with those politicians remaining in power,” he said.

Van Klinken also stressed the importance of being able to work at all levels. There is no point, for instance, in encouraging user groups to lobby a local council on service provision if the council does not see providing that service as part of its job, he said.

He also warned against aid groups becoming too involved in advocacy for citizen groups, which could forfeit the trust of officials they need to work with. Aid groups have to strike a balance between being an insider and outsider, a collaborator as well as a criticizer, he said.

Political savvy is needed not only for spotting windows of opportunity, but for designing interventions. Sue Unsworth, of the Policy Practice, said donors must distinguish between incoherence that is the accidental result of poor institutions and incoherence that is deliberate.

Unsworth told IRIN, “Some of the reasons people don’t fix issues about mandates and roles, and address some of the incoherence in policies and institutions, is that they don’t want to. They may have deliberately created it through populist pre-election initiatives, where the thinking behind it wasn’t a good, coherent long-term policy. But you can at least start with the accidental muddles and things which can be sorted out and rationalized without affecting embedded, vested interests.”

The overall message is that the most effective outside interventions are likely to be low-key and long-term, and to work within the system as it is. Unfortunately, this approach could leave fundamentally bad systems unchanged, and it sits uneasily with donor demands for clearly planned and funded projects with straightforward, measurable results.

And, of course there is the risk that, once outside interventions stop supplying the grease, the systems may once again grind to a halt.