The state-private interface in public service provision

Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett


Political theory sets out a strong case for the state to play a major role in public service provision. Yet services are often provided by a range of state and non-state actors as well as by collaborative partnerships. This paper surveys the literature, seeking to map arrangements in developing countries and to understand the politics of different types of service provision. It finds strong evidence that some level of state capacity and rule of law is important for effective service provision, and that the perceived legitimacy of non-state service providers partially determines their success.

The paper draws on published and grey literature from the last five years. From academics, practitioners, policy-makers and Southern perspectives, across a wide range of countries, across regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, where the most substantial body of evidence and analysis exists, and the Asia-Pacific region, where the diversity of security and justice programming offers important lessons.

Key findings

  • There is strong evidence that public-private partnerships work best where there is a good fit with local norms and expectations – legitimacy – and structured relationships with institutions that can monitor providers and have the independence to do so. This implies that some level of state capacity and rule of law is important.
  • Types of interface that works best vary according to sectoral characteristics and the complexity of a particular service. Even where state capacity is weak, public-private partnerships may effectively carry out simple tasks or elements of service provision that need little coordination among different actors, as long as those partnerships have local legitimacy. More complex programmes are, however, likely to flounder.
  • When services are outsourced, it is preferable that the state builds and retains expertise in contracting and, ideally, some capability to provide the same services itself.
  • Multinationals’ ability to provide public services is limited, even where there is significant corporate commitment, if the public does not view them as legitimate providers.
  • Outsourcing raises accountability and corruption risks in tendering, contracting and renegotiation processes, and the ‘revolving door’ exchange of staff between the private and public sector.
  • Informal networks of actors who switch between public and private identities to maximise their own gains may undermine the building of sustainable service provision capacity. On the other hand, locally embedded actors and organisations can sometimes provide extra-legal governance that supports service provision.


Further research is needed to better understand the politics of partnerships from the point of view of both partners, rather than considering provision separately from one provider, or one actor as having primary agency while another responds.


Dávid-Barrett, E. (2015). The State-Private Interface in Public Service Provision. State of the Art Paper 6. Birmingham: Development Leadership Program (DLP), University of Birmingham.