Let’s get strategic about service delivery

Service delivery should take trust in public institutions into account; we respond to the Rockefeller Foundations' 2018 Anniversary Letter


Improvements in service delivery in areas as diverse as health and access to energy are among the levers used by the Rockefeller Foundation to address the world’s biggest challenges. But delivering services should not only focus on improving human development outcomes. It also needs to navigate how service delivery affects people’s trust in public institutions. This is a complex challenge for the Foundation as well as for any other actor working to improve services for the world most vulnerable.

In the Rockefeller Foundation’s 2018 Anniversary Letter, President Dr Raj J. Shah outlined the organisation’s impressive work and the challenges that lie ahead. In his letter, Shah points to the problem that many people around the world are losing faith in the public institutions that are intended to serve their needs and interests. This is the case in the United States and globally, and it is a big problem because trust in institutions – whether public or private – is an important underlying driver of development, growth, and stability.

Service delivery and trust: “it’s complicated”

Trust in public institutions stems from a multitude of factors. People tend to trust public institutions more when these appear reliable, responsive, and fair, and when they are able and willing to offer protection and deliver services. When state institutions are trusted, groups in society are likely to accept and abide by the state’s rules. Trust in government therefore usually leads to greater compliance with regulations and the tax system. Trust also facilitates social and political consensus, enhances the acceptance of policies that call for short-term sacrifices by citizens, it supports economic growth by stimulating investment and consumption, and mobilises citizen engagement to enable open and inclusive governance processes.

Service delivery matters for how people perceive government institutions, and it matters for whether they trust them. But the relationship is not as straightforward as one might expect. At Oxford Policy Management, we have experienced this complexity first hand as we help governments with public policy and service delivery reforms in low and middle income countries. A rapidly growing body of empirical research (see also here and here) demonstrates how the relationship between service delivery and perceptions of the state as legitimate or trustworthy is complex and non-linear.

The relationship is mediated through a range of contextual factors. Attribution – to whom people actually credit service delivery – is a key issue. Where service delivery roles and responsibilities are split between multiple actors, users may only attribute receipt of the service to the immediate provider rather than the financing and governance bodies that support the provider. Some empirical research suggests that, where NGOs are front-line providers of services, users are less likely to display improvements in their perceptions of state institutions. In Zambia, Audrey Sacks finds that citizens incorrectly attributed government services to non-state actors where NGOs, churches, and donors were engaged in delivering similar services nearby. Attribution questions may also arise in contexts where services such as energy supply are being delivered by the private sector through public-private partnerships.

How services are delivered and their perceived impartiality also matter. This is demonstrated by qualitative research in Liberia, Nepal, and Colombia which found that unequal or exclusionary access to public goods was detrimental to citizens’ views of the state as legitimate. Impartiality is particularly important in fragile and post-conflict contexts, partly because service delivery has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities, and partly because redistribution of services can help legitimise public institutions among previously excluded groups.

Citizen’s expectations play an equally important role. Improvements in service delivery may not result in improved perceptions of trust and legitimacy in institutions where there are already high expectations, and conversely the lack of service delivery may not hinder perceptions of institutions as legitimate and trustworthy where expectations are already very low. This means that operation and maintenance in service delivery matter a great deal when an institution has begun to deliver services, because decreasing quality or unfulfilled promises are likely to cause frustration and undermine perceptions of the state as capable and legitimate – even if citizens initially did not expect the service to be delivered!

Getting strategic about service delivery

The complexity of the relationship between service delivery and trust has real implications for how governments and development actors approach service delivery interventions. In order to leverage the full potential of the Rockefeller Foundation’s interventions in health, energy, and other sectors, Shah and his colleagues at Rockefeller should seize the opportunity to approach service delivery more strategically. Achieving this objective will be a challenge and it must be approached holistically from the early policy design through to implementation and evaluation of interventions.

A useful starting point for the Foundation is to make sure to identify, design, deliver, and evaluate service delivery enhancements based on a multi-criteria framework that not only accounts for human development outcomes, but also takes account of several other factors. These should include:

  • citizens’ current perceptions of, and expectations towards, the delivery of a particular service. Big data analytics and citizen feedback initiatives such as the CFMP in Pakistan can help institutions do this faster and cheaper;
  • institutions’ financial, technological, and human resource capacity to sustain quality in service delivery over time;
  • how service delivery improvements will be perceived by citizens, and whether and how they will be attributed to public institutions.

Finding the sweet spot between these sometimes conflicting criteria is a difficult task, but something the Rockefeller Foundation is well positioned to do.

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