Effective and Equitable Service Delivery

In countries around the world, the public sector delivers the services that people rely on daily to get ahead in life, such as schools for their children, public health services, access to clean drinking water, and roads for getting goods to market. Beyond providing for basic human needs, public-sector services also help unlock the economic potential of the people who receive them by enhancing their skills, strengthening their health, and connecting them with jobs. Thus, strengthening the effective and equitable delivery of services is one of the most direct ways to promote economic growth and reduce poverty. 

Since the early 2000s, the global development agenda and the focus of the international development community have come to a consensus that governments have a responsibility to provide for a range of basic services that facilitate human well-being and economic progress. As a result, the MDGs have served to focus attention on the important role of key public services in achieving economic and social development: USD 9.2 billion is being spent in official development assistance each year on programs in education, health, water supply and sanitation, and agriculture alone. However, much less attention has been paid to the effectiveness and equity with which public sector resources and development assistance are being transformed into service delivery outcomes. As a result, despite ever-increasing outlays in development resources, almost 15 years after the adoption of the MDGs, 61 million school-aged children in Africa and Asia still lack access to a meaningful basic education. Limited access to basic health services results in an estimated 655,000 malaria deaths each year, while 11 percent of the global population—783 million people—still lack access to improved drinking water source.

These statistics reveal something that is already known domestically in many developed economies: ensuring effective service delivery is not just a matter of greater resources. It requires the public sector and development partners to

  • target spending where it is needed the most and make sure that financial resources reach the frontline service delivery facilities where services are actually provided to the people;
  • improve capacity and coordination among public stakeholders at different levels of government to increase efficiency, equity, and sustainability of public service provision;
  • ensure that frontline service providers are responsive and accountable to the communities they serve;
  • monitor and motivate public workers to ensure that they achieve results; and
  • create alliances between the public and private sectors and involve providers outside the public sector to unlock the creativity and competitive advantage of the private sector and civil society.  

Technical Expertise

Lasting improvements in service delivery process and outcomes are achieved when policy formulation is informed by evidence-based policy research and when policy makers and implementers are held accountable for their performance. We based this knowledge on almost half a century of public policy research in the United States and over two decades of engagement in the international development arena. Our premise is that in the developing world, the most widespread and durable obstacles to public-sector performance and sustained improvements in service delivery are poor systems of public sector learning and accountability.

The Urban Institute strategy to support better service delivery outcomes across a range of public sector services—ranging from basic education and health services to water supply, from agricultural programs to rural development, from urban services to infrastructure—includes generating knowledge about the effectiveness of public-sector institutions and the dissemination of tools for learning and accountability:

  • The economics and governance of service delivery. Improving public services to achieve inclusive development is not just a matter of spending more money. Responsive and effective service delivery systems require, first, finding an optimal combination of inputs (human resources, operation and maintenance, supplies and capital infrastructure) and, second, a governance framework that ensures that resources flow down to the local level and that gives frontline service staff the discretion, incentives, and accountability to do their jobs well and respond to the needs of their communities. In this context, the Urban Institute uses evidence-based research to analyze which service delivery interventions give government agencies and the development partners the greatest value-for-money to attain their service delivery objectives.
  • Improving local service delivery transparency. Although local governments are the government level that is closest to the people, local governments have to be transparent and responsive stewards of their public-service responsibilities for devolution to empower the people whom they serve. As such, Urban works with local governments and their associations to enhance the transparency and performance of local budgets, local taxes, and locally delivered services.
  • Promoting high-performing local government organizations and inclusive service delivery action planning. Our concept allows local leaders to increase their effectiveness within existing constraints, helping them think in fresh ways and approach intransigent problems with new perspectives and tools. The Urban Institute developed the Inclusive Service Action Planning (ISAP) approach in 1999 to help local governments identify priority problems, select the right outcome indicators, set targets, and measure results.
  • Improving financing of local public services. The Urban Institute support for the development of conditional grants in intergovernmental finance build tools of performance measurement and management into education, health, and other service sectors.


Recent Urban project efforts within our "Service Delivery" thematic area include:

  • Kosovo Democratic Effective Municipalities Initiative, 2010–13;
  • El Salvador Development of a Decentralization Strategy for Three Sectors (Health, Education and Water), 2013–14;
  • Uganda Strengthening Decentralization for Sustainability, 2010–15;
  • Strengthening the Geographical Allocation of Resources within the Health Sector in Tanzania, 2013; and
  • Pakistan Districts that Work (DTW), 2006–09.

For projects on urban service delivery, please see our "Urbanization" thematic area page.


Recent Urban research efforts within our "Service Delivery" thematic area include:

  • The Role of the Local Public Sector in Achieving Development Results (Health and Education);
  • An Assessment of Urban Public Service Delivery in South Asia: An Analysis of Institutional and Fiscal Constraints;
  • The Role of the Local Public Sector Finance in Achieving Sustainable Development;
  • Inclusive Service Delivery Action Plans: A performance Management Tool That Integrates Target-Setting, Performance Measurement, and Budgeting to Get Measurably Better Services; and
  • Improving Low Performing Schools in Pakistan.


Contact IDG info for more information about IDG's project activities and research on effective and equitable service delivery.