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Research Agenda

Phase 2: 2005-10
Programme 1:
Public Action & Private Investment
Programme 2:
Collective Action Around Service Delivery
Programme 3:
State Capacity

Phase 1: 2000-05

Programme 1:
Financing the State

Programme 2:
Mobilising Public Action

Programme 3:
Co-Producing Public Services

Phase 2 - Programme 3:
State Capacity

Convenors: Ali Cheema, LUMS and Andres Mejia Acosta IDS


As the state has regained prominence in development thinking there is growing interest in forms of state capacity that promote wealth creation and poverty reduction. Prevailing approaches emphasise technocratic models of public administration in which hierarchy and centralised control are dominant features. Consistent with this, state capacity building emphasises improving skills and incentives through training and pay reforms and modernising tools and systems of administration through managerial and structural reforms. These approaches have informed models of public administration reform and capacity building for the past two decades but have often failed to achieve their objectives. Systematic improvements in capacity remain elusive and the resultant development benefits are difficult to discern. For this reason there is a compelling need to both analyse the limitations of existing models and identify how capacities are changing in response to broader changes in the institutional and political environment at global and national levels.

The limitations of technocratic approaches are increasingly recognised by policy makers and aid donors, who acknowledge the influence of politics on reform implementation and outcomes. But despite the recognition that political factors play a critical role in shaping efforts to improve the efficiency, performance and accountability of the civil service and individual state officials, there is no firm guide as to which political factors exert influence in different reform contexts or contribute to the construction of capacities that give rise to positive development outcomes. The new conventional wisdom is predicated on ‘getting politics right' in programme design while retaining a standardised set of reform prescriptions premised on the hierarchy and control model. Yet this fails to recognise the significance of the changes that have taken place in the character of the state in recent years.

The state in the developing world has undergone a fundamental transformation over the past two decades. Changes in the functions of the state are reflected in new organizational structures and institutional practices. The combined influence of democratization, liberalization and globalisation, along with the emergence of new security challenges, is giving rise to states with markedly different attributes from the centralised, bureaucratic developmental and welfare states that were the norm in many developing countries up to the early 1980s. As a result of these changes states are increasingly compelled to engage with a much greater multiplicity of actors that are challenging the centrality of the state in policy making and service delivery which is in turn predicated on new types of capacity.

In the face of these challenges states in developing and transition countries are evolving from the centralised, bureaucratic model of public administration characteristic of many developing countries (the Weberian or ‘command-hierarchy approach') to more flexible and variegated structures that can be typified as the ‘influence-network approach'. A very different set of capacities from the centralized top-down model of public administration are increasingly required by states as they engage with a growing multiplicity of actors at international, sub-national and local levels with a complex set of expectations, demands and interests.

These new forms of capacity extend the conventional range of functions associated with states, which are centered on the ability of states to plan and execute policies and enforce laws. While policy formation and programme implementation are likely to remain core state functions, the means by which states engage with a greater plurality of actors calls for the acquisition of rather different types of capacity which depend more on managing relations with institutions at different levels than a singular focus on the attributes of effective bureaucracies associated with centralized forms of state power. In particular, the claims that social movements, civil society organisations, and private sector groups exert on the policy process and public resources require state actors to develop new skills and resources to engage with organised social interests at different levels of the political system. Globalisation is shifting the balance of power and decision making upwards from the national state to institutions and organisations in the international domain and while economic liberalisation is extending power and authority laterally and downwards to non-state actors outside the realm of executive authority.


In analysing the changing nature of state capacity this research programme focuses on the core organisational attributes of the state and how these are evolving in response to raid changes in the domestic and external environment. It is directed both to an academic audience concerned with politics and the state in developing countries, and the more practical concerns of policy makers in governments and agencies who want to develop more effective and durable approaches to state capacity building.

The research question at the heart of this research programme can be framed as follows:

“What forms of capacity do states need and acquire as they engage with a growing multiplicity of actors in response to changes in the broader domestic and global environment?”

The research programme on state capacity can be distinguished from the other two research themes in the following manner.

  • Programme 1: State and private capital – the emphasis in this programme is on how states promote investment through the construction of common interests with private capital.

  • Programme 2: State and collective action – this programme is concerned with the mobilisation of common interests in response to state service delivery reforms.

  • Programme 3 – here the emphasis is on how state capacity develops through new forms of engagement with societal and external actors.


The research programme on state capacity seeks to broaden conventional understanding through conceptual innovation and the identification of a more analytically-informed set of categories through innovative empirical research on different aspects of state capacity in discrete organisational and structural contexts. The initial phase of research projects under this programme will help to deepen concepts and refine categories for defining new parameters of public action and state capacity. At this stage we have identified a range of indicative capacities that states need to acquire in order to perform these new roles and functions which will be refined as the research progresses.

In the realm of policy making, these capacities might be typified as facilitation, defined as the ability to facilitate opportunities for structured deliberation through consultative mechanisms or institutionalized participation; mediation , where the state actively moderates between claimants on policy priorities and resources; and negotiation , where the state bargains and enters into agreements with organized social actors to achieve greater leverage or prevent one set of interests from becoming excessively powerful.

A wider range of actors and organizations engaged in the direct provision of public goods and services demands new capacities to manage complex legal and contractual arrangements. Two sets of capacities may prove especially important in the context of liberalization and growing prevalence of new forms of public management. One is the coordination of diverse social and political actors across different jurisdictions to guard against the potential fragmentation of provision and the duplication of functions by state and non-state actors. Capacity for effective regulation is increasingly required to meet their obligations under international environmental and labour standards and to ensure quality control as functions are divested to the private sector and not-for-profit service providers. States need to ensure that potential threats of social exclusion and marginalization are mitigated through active regulation and ensuring quality access, affordability and coverage of public services.

Finally, a more competitive global environment demands enhanced capacities to deal with the challenges and maximize the opportunities arising from globalisation. States can actively encourage innovation , through the adoption of new methods, procedures and organizational structures. This can entail the creative use and application of new information and communications technologies to increase the efficiency of government operations and speed of decision making and implementation. It can also encompass the creation of new organizations to respond to a changing global environment which in turn demands the construction of new kinds of knowledge and skills within state structures. Knowledge management is a related form of capacity that is likely to prove increasingly significant in an increasingly globalised world characterised by multiple sources and flows of information.

All these capacities are some way removed from the more conventional forms of capacity that are associated with the design and execution of policies and programmes through a centralized and hierarchical bureaucratic apparatus. The effectiveness of these structures was narrowly determined in terms of inputs and outputs and value for money. Analysing the significance and impact of these new forms of capacity directs our attention to process outcomes and the means by which states productively engage a growing plurality of actors outside the state, as much as the outcomes resulting from state action in terms of improvements in the effectiveness of policy options and service delivery.

Research themes and projects

Four main research themes were identified as a priority for the state capacity programme in the inception phase. Two of these themes address the impact of changing domestic factors on state capacity by considering

  1. the political factors that influence state effectiveness and productivity in public organisations, and
  2. the influence of informal institutions that impact on local state capacities.

The other two projects are primarily concerned with external influences on state capacity by examining

  1. the effects of donor proliferation and
  2. the impact of foreign aid for state-building in post-conflict environments.

At the July 2006 Annual Meeting the DRC Management Committee approved two further small-scale projects under the state capacity. These will:

  1. examine the politics of budget governance as a key dimension of state capacity, and
  2. address the capacity of the state for implementing affirmative action policies in concert with private capital and non-state actors

For further information on all projects currently running under this Programme, please click here>>


Much of the thinking for the state capacity programme emerged from a research planning workshop at IDS in January 2006. Papers reviewing the literature on the politics of state capacity were prepared by Mark Robinson and Joseph Ayee as a basis for initiating discussion on conceptual frameworks and research priorities. These were followed by presentations from researchers on the initial research projects funded under this programme along with outline proposals and research ideas from other researchers present at the workshop. A paper setting out the parameters of the research programme was developed after the workshop. Further outputs under this programme are available under the relevant projects relating to this research.

An individual Reader List consisting of key texts for Programme 3 has now been compiled and distributed in hard copy or CD format. For more information please see the Resource Page of the DRC Capacity Building Programme


* Mark Robinson was co-convenor from 2005-2006




Projects currently running under this programme:

The Politics of Resource Dependency

Donor Proliferation and State Capacity

Informal Institutions, State and Public Action in Asia

Budget Governance and State Capacity

Completed or past projects:

Building State Capacity in Timor Leste

The Political Economy of Public Sector 'Pockets of Productivity'

State Capacity and the Politics of Redress - Consultative Mechanisms in South Africa and Brazil

E-Governance at Closer Quarters: the case of the online complaint monitoring system

Outputs Latest

Working Paper 311: 'Aid, Rents and the Politics of the Budget Process'

Lima Workshop November 2008

An individual Reader List consisting of key texts for Programme 3 has now been compiled and distributed in hard copy or CD format. For more information please see the Resource Page of the DRC Capacity Building Programme





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