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The effects of sector characteristics on accountability relationships in service delivery

Working papers

Working papers

Why do different services encounter particular constraints and opportunities in their delivery? This working paper identifies a set of characteristics that can be used to differentiate between services, and between functions within them, and asks how these defining or ‘fixed’ characteristics may influence key relationships of accountability and control.

It outlines a number of ways in which the nature of the good being produced, the type of market failure encountered, the tasks involved in delivery, and how the service is demanded and consumed can influence the balance of power between politicians, users and provider organisations.

Without diminishing the necessity of understanding context-specific political economy factors, the paper argues that sector characteristics offer an entry point for thinking about the opportunities for and constraints to improved service delivery. More than technical matters, sector characteristics influence the institutions, incentives and power structures that emerge around particular services.

Three broad findings about the effects of sector characteristics on accountability relationships emerge from this review.

  • First, the characteristics of a particular service influence the incentives for politicians, providers and users to commit resources to producing it, and for politicians to be accountable to citizens for service performance.
  • Second, sector characteristics may determine the balance of power between policymakers and other actors and the likely form and effectiveness of provider compacts.
  • Third, sector characteristics set the broad parameters for whether and how citizens can collectively mobilise around services and make demands on delivery organisations.

Based on an indicative review of recent studies in the health, education, water and sanitation sectors, more specific propositions about the effects of sector characteristics can be made. In particular, the nature of a particular good has been shown to influence calculations of political returns and to shape opportunities for the distribution and management of rents.

Likewise the visibility of different service outputs appears to be a key factor in the political dynamics that emerge around delivery. The measurability, transaction-intensity and level of discretion involved in performing different functions influences the degree to which policymakers and bureaucrats can control the behaviour and incentives of delivery organisations.

Moreover, different services, and different functions within them, offer different scope for citizen’s interactions with the state. In particular, the territorial boundaries of a service, and its frequency and predictability of use, are factors that influence the scope for direct user accountability. These propositions could be tested through further research and analysis.

To the degree that sector characteristics enable or constrain relationships of accountability between local actors, they can also facilitate or complicate the delivery, measurement, and evaluation of aid.

An approach to analysing the effects of sector characteristics is therefore proposed: one that can be combined with broader political economy analysis to develop a rounded account of how different services perform.

Claire Mcloughlin with Richard Batley