Service delivery and state legitimacy: for better or for worse?

24th November 2015

People’s reactions to the question ‘does better service delivery improve a state’s legitimacy?’ are typically fast, instinctive and often surprisingly emotive. To use Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow model, ‘System 1’ thinking kicks in. Of course services support state legitimacy, encouraging citizens to accept the state’s right to rule over them. Can we imagine a legitimate state that doesn’t meet its citizens’ basic human needs?

Services form part of the connecting tissue between states and societies – they are the tangible link between what citizens give the state (taxes) and what they expect in return (wellbeing). State institutions must surely become more legitimate when they produce visible results that improve people’s lives. And greater legitimacy makes it easier for the state to rule without the threat or use of force, so it can devote more capacity to delivering even more and better services. So there is a self-reinforcing virtuous circle between service delivery and state legitimacy – isn’t there?

A huge amount of damage can be done very quickly if service delivery ... is perceived to challenge fundamental social norms

The problem is that, like many intuitions, this is very hard to prove. For one thing, legitimacy is a latent concept that is notoriously difficult to measure (more on this in a new DLP paper). And when we move into Kahneman’s ‘System 2’ thinking – a slower, calculating process – we fetch up against some important challenges to the logic of the service delivery = legitimacy equation. On the few occasions when social science has asked whether services improve legitimacy, the somewhat deflating answer has been an underwhelming “it depends”.

What does it depend on? Whether people perceive that services are distributed fairly, for instance, is just as important as more measurable, objective criteria like net enrolment. It may depend on processes, particularly whether positive relationships are built in the course of co-producing services, and how far bridges are built between divided social groups. Perceptions of procedural fairness, or the existence of grievance mechanisms, may be significant in some contexts. Nor are services a monolithic entity. Different services accrue different levels of political significance, often over a long period of social contract formation, and they may be more or less easily visible or attributable to the state.

The point is this: subjective and historically embedded norms against which different services are judged matter more for legitimacy than objective measures of output.

It is striking that politics is largely absent from the debate about when services influence state legitimacy. Yet citizens’ evaluations of services don’t hang free from the political environment, the nature of the political settlement, ideology, values, leadership, party competition, repression or a host of other concerns. All these things influence their assessment, and affect whether they will grant the state legitimacy or withdraw it. Perceptions of performance, which can be politically engineered, may be as important for state legitimacy as actual performance. Enter that slippery and all-pervading variable of ‘politics’.

We need to ask: “When might services undermine legitimacy?”

There is a further, more serious problem than the shaky ground on which the services = legitimacy intuition seems to stand. It comes from what Kahneman might call its ‘framing effects’. When, as practitioners or researchers, we think about the relationship between service delivery and state legitimacy, we tend to frame it positively as a virtuous circle. This obscures our cognitive capacity to engage with the quite probable alternative proposition – that service delivery might in some circumstances undermine state legitimacy.

A huge amount of damage can be done very quickly if service delivery, or social policy more broadly, is perceived to challenge fundamental social norms. Sri Lanka’s experience with higher education during the 1970s is a good example of this. Uneven access to desired public goods came to symbolise wider inequalities and even the exclusion of certain social groups from the political settlement. It catalysed division and became an aggravating factor in civil war. In other settings, this might happen even where the stated goal is to rectify legacies of inequality in pursuit of social justice.

Challenging entrenched privileges through service redistribution is one route to social conflict, but another is creating unrealistic expectations over the short term. Slow improvement may quickly frustrate citizens in post-conflict situations who have been promised a tangible peace dividend.

Vital public services are often on the front line in conflicts over ‘the rules of the game’. Pakistan’s recent experience with polio immunisation is a particularly stark demonstration of a recurring historical pattern in which services come to symbolise a struggle between the state’s norms and those of competing non-state actors. Services are rarely neutral, technocratic exercises in any social setting, let alone conflict-affected societies.

The lesson is that we may do harm to legitimacy when we support the allocation of vital public services in fragile or conflict-affected states. Exploring and understanding this better is hardly on the agenda, yet the avowed international goal is to support legitimate institutions.

Surely, then, it's time not only to question our intuition about the positive contribution of service delivery, but to dare to reverse it. We need to ask: “When might services undermine legitimacy?” We may discover that our ‘System 1’ intuition is more than misguided – that, in fact, it is a diversion. The ‘do no harm’ principle demands that all of us in the field of development should understand how services may affect legitimacy and stability, for better and for worse.

A new collaborative action research project is applying this perspective, looking at how municipal services can support, or at least not undermine, social stability in those parts of Lebanon and Jordan coping with a massive influx of Syrian refugees.

Image: North Darfur (UN Photo/Albert González Farran)


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The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.


Claire Mcloughlin

Claire Mcloughlin

Claire is a senior researcher with DLP and GSDRC, based at the University of Birmingham's International Development Department. Her research focuses on the politics of basic services and their effects on state-building processes. She is currently researching the relationship between service provision and state legitimation in conflict-affected situations.

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