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An agenda for change in service delivery

Written by Marta Foresti

An agenda for change in service delivery

Why is it that despite bold plans, significant injections of international and domestic resources, and better public financial management, service delivery is still failing in most poor developing countries? Experience from a range of countries reveals that above the front line of service delivery, there may be a lack of appreciation about the real drivers of performance (and of poor performance), including analysis of the actual incentives (and disincentives) at play. Understanding why teachers do not show up in schools or what motivates health professionals to keep up with latest professional standards and procedures is key to better supporting service delivery.

In the last five years political economy analysis (PEA) has started to shed some light on the politics and incentives that shape service delivery outcomes in different sectors. ODI has been at the forefront of this work with research on health, transport, trade and water and sanitation. Earlier this week we co-hosted a workshop with Plan UK to consider the key lessons emerging form this work and the implications for external actors – including donors and NGOs – wanting to improve their support for service delivery in different sectors.

Governance and sector specialists from health, education and water contributed to a very lively debate and there was a sense of optimism that ‘working politically’ has the potential to make a real difference. However, this will only happen if we change the way we work: the way we plan and design programmes, the way we organise ourselves to deliver on investments, and how we understand and measure risks and results.

I took away four key messages from this workshop. Some will take longer than others to achieve, but all are feasible and require urgent attention.

1.Try something new: Experiment with different ways of working, including at arm’s length through different types of local actors, beyond the usual suspects of national NGOs, including those who can act as brokers and mediators to negotiate relationships between users, suppliers and providers.

2.Get over the demand-supply divide: ODI’s work on community scorecards in Malawi and Africa Power and Politics research on maternal health in Rwanda suggests that what makes a difference for quality and effectiveness of service delivery can be collaborative strategies between citizens, providers and others, where they find feasible solutions to ‘collective action’ problems and facilitate local problem-solving.

3.Break down disciplinary and sectoral silos:  Programmes must focus on the actual problem to be addressed, with genuine collaboration between sectoral, governance and other specialists. Too often sectoral or disciplinary bias predetermines types of strategies and narrows the range of solutions possible.

4.Use a focus on results as an opportunity to change: It is time to demand greater investment in ex ante feasibility assessments that focus on the political viability of programmes, and to grab the idea that all programmes should have a solid theory of change with both hands. Looking ahead, we also need to find new ways to link impact evaluations with forms of political economy analysis, to tell us more about when and under what conditions interventions are likely to succeed. As part of this, more attention needs to be paid to the commitment to doing no harm.

Applied research also has an importantrole to play. Those conducting sectoral political economy analysis need to focus much more on:

· Drivers and patterns of exclusion: PEA needs to focus more on what explains exclusion or unequal access to services and on the role played by different actors, not just institutional ones. These include looking more closely at the incentives and motivations of private sector providers, as well as a wider range of formal and informal non state actors.

· PEA as a sustained process of engagement. Research and analysis is simply not effective enough to support change. More time and effort need to be invested in defining the problem or focus of analysis; and operational staff need to be prepared to invest their time in developing policy recommendations and options based on independent analysis.

None of this is impossible to do, but it is labour intensive and can be time consuming. There are no shortcuts or quick wins in working politically at the sectoral level and no guarantee of success. But we are starting to have concrete examples of how to unlock institutional blockages and better understand the ‘black boxes’ along delivery chains. Let’s seize that momentum and start to get real in how we apply and use these forms of analysis to help support that. Watch this space as we will be scaling up our work in this area and please get in touch if you see opportunities for collaboration.