This essay reviews the literature on the politics of bureaucracy in the developing world, with a focus on service delivery and bureaucratic performance. We survey classic topics and themes such as the developmental state, principal-agent relations, and the efficient grease hypothesis, and link them to new research findings in political science, sociology, and economics. We identify the concept of embeddedness as an important yet still underexplored framework that cuts across disciplines and which may be used to understand bureaucratic performance and service delivery. Looking forward, we outline a framework for conceptualizing bureaucratic action by exploiting variation across time, space, task, and client, and identify promising areas for further research on the bureaucrat-citizen encounter in developing countries.
In working through the literature here (and without speaking for my co-authors), the most striking conclusion for me is how little cumulative knowledge we have about how bureaucracies and frontline service providers affect the political lives of citizens outside of the advanced industrial economies. As we note, channelling Charles Goodsell from way back in 1981, “most politics is not electoral politics, and the vast majority of experiences that citizens have with the state are not electoral in nature. The face of politics for most citizens, instead, is a bureaucrat.” While reading the literature, I found myself hearkening back to our demoralizing experiences renewing our visas in the South Jakarta immigration office in December 2004. But even that experience is not a good parallel for public school teachers and frontline health workers as the “face of the state” for the average person.
Given the growth of social protection, decentralized service delivery, and related programs in the global development agenda in recent years, political scientists have a lot to learn, and ought to have a lot to contribute.