Analysing the politics of public services: a service characteristics approach

Richard Batley and Daniel Harris
Year of publication: 

The service characteristics approach, described here, was developed as a tool to explain the political dynamics of particular services. It has been tested and elaborated in discussion with specialists in health, education, water and sanitation, focusing on current debates in each sector.

We find that service characteristics may reinforce each others’ effects on the likelihood of competitive provision, on access to and exclusion from services, on monitorability by policymakers and managers, on users’ capacity to organise demands and, ultimately, on the political salience or significance of services.

Specific clusters of characteristics may influence the incentives and accountability of the actors (elected politicians, policymakers, providers, potential and actual users) in service provision.

Additional characteristics proposed by sector specialists include the feasibility of co-production, ‘lootability’ (opportunities for rent seeking) and the duration and durability of chronic conditions and services.

The approach identifies not only differences but also similarities between services, indicating the possibility of sharing experience and practices between them. Such analysis can generate change both by making actors more aware of structural problems and by identifying specific organisational reforms and policies.

This approach can add value to collaboration between specialists in different sectors and between governance and sector specialists, including in the context of country programming.