Services in the city: governance and political economy in urban service delivery

Harry Jones, Clare Cummings, Hamish Nixon


How good is service delivery in urban areas? This discussion paper reviews literature on the political economy of four key urban services: solid waste management, water supply, transport, and urban health services. The four sector reviews demonstrate the importance of governance factors – partly rooted in physical, economic, social and political differences between rural and urban environments – in shaping service delivery in urban environments.

While there are important variations between and within urban environments, urban service sectors display common as well as distinct characteristics in respect to the goods provided, their market failure traits, and their task- and demand-related qualities. At the same time, and often as a result of these sector characteristics, urban environments display patterns of common governance constraints, such as prevalence of certain political market imperfections, a proneness to policy, regulatory and managerial incoherence, and demand-side collective action challenges.

Improving service delivery for the urban poor is an urgent priority. By 2030, the worldwide urban population is expected to grow by 1.4 billion people, with city and town dwellers accounting for 60% of the total world population. The vast majority of this growth will take place in developing countries, and urban growth and migration is leading to the ‘urbanisation of poverty’. The perception of an ‘urban advantage’ in services can obscure great differences among and within urban populations. There are stark inequalities in many urban areas, and correspondingly clear inequities in access to services, with large proportions of the population unable to access quality basic services. This is especially true for the nearly 1 billion people who live in informal settlements.

Political economy factors are just as important for urban service delivery as funding and technical capacity. These factors are influenced by both the characteristics and accountability relationships of the services in question, and the political economy of the wider context. Urban areas may benefit from greater resources, better technical capacity, and receive more political attention than rural areas, which can make providing and improving services easier. However, incentives in urban centres do not ensure that these advantages lead to more equitable or better-quality service delivery, so that even if urban areas have the resources, the politics of service delivery may hamper performance.

This discussion paper reviews literature on the political economy of four urban services (solid waste management, water supply, transport and healthcare) in light of two questions:

    • Do these sector and governance characteristics show particular patterns across urban environments and services?
    • How similar or different are these patterns in relation to different urban services?

Key Findings:

    • Urban service delivery is a growing priority as poverty is urbanising.
    • Densely populated urban areas place pressure on service delivery systems resulting in numerous, often uncoordinated and unregulated providers.
    • Key constraints may include differences in political salience (deriving from differences in intensity of demand, visibility, targetability and attributability), the cost of services to users, capacity to articulate demand, and the management of diverse providers across complex governance environments.
    • Mobile and sometimes polarised populations can further limit service delivery, including through limited capacity for collective action.
    • But the urban environment provides opportunities too, particularly for more developmental leadership.


Jones, H., Cummings, C., & Nixon, H. (2014). Services in the city: governance and political economy in urban service delivery. ODI Discussion Paper. London: ODI