Opinion: 4 ways to support local service delivery in expanding urban environments

Tetra Tech encouraged public policy dialogues and PRODES organized public forums where citizens spoke freely and interacted with local officials. This led to multiple successful forums in all of the regions, where authorities, electoral candidates, and citizens committed to improving public services in education, health, and waste management. Photo by: Tetra Tech

There is clear consensus in the development community that local governance represents both a major challenge and a distinct opportunity. Local governments have long been the hub for economic development and social inclusion and their capacity to deliver services is integral in preparing them to best manage demographic shifts.

Yet across the developing world, this capacity is being tested like never before as rapid urbanization strains services, especially in secondary cities with populations of between 50,000 and 1 million. By 2030, some estimates predict that more people will live in these secondary cities than in major cities, placing further demand on local governments to better manage the needs of some of the region’s most marginalized communities as demands on their services increase.

As local governments try to keep pace with inevitable demographic changes, their capacity to respond and address policy issues becomes even more crucial. In light of this growing pressure on secondary cities, investing in increasing the local governance/service delivery linkage is key to prevent and manage potential risks.  

Based on four decades of work strengthening local capacity and improving service delivery around the world, we’ve identified some of the key factors for strengthening service delivery and local governance capacity in the face of rapid urbanization.

“As local governments try to keep pace with inevitable demographic changes, their capacity to respond and address policy issues becomes even more crucial.”

— Gerardo Berthin, political scientist and senior associate, Tetra Tech

1. Policy dialogue can create a foundation for effective service delivery.  

Local service delivery must not be viewed in isolation, but rather as part of a much larger system of governance involving horizontal and vertical interactions among policymakers and citizens. Policy dialogue affords citizens and government officials an opportunity to discuss the current state of decentralized governance while sharing relevant best practices, knowledge, and data.

Done well, these conversations serve as both powerful tools for amplifying outreach regarding institutional reforms and as spaces that promote civic education. Trust built through ongoing dialogue will be even more important as population migrations will strain local governments even more in the years ahead.

2. Local capacity matters.

Decentralization program in Peru

A key component of the Peru ProDecentralization Program, or PRODES — funded by the United States Agency for International Development and implemented by Tetra Tech — was the strengthening of policy dialogue between national and sub-national governments and civil society. Through these two-way policy dialogues, citizens improved their knowledge of the functions of local government and better understood how they could participate in the decision-making process. These conversations built trust between the government and the governed, promoted participatory governance, and allowed disadvantaged groups to participate directly in decision-making processes. For example, PRODES worked with the National Office for Dialogue and Sustainability in drafting a new law to establish a system for conflict prevention and management.

Evidence shows that capacity efforts to improve local service delivery can have a positive effect on decentralized governance by reinforcing trust in government institutions. For example, in Tetra Tech’s USAID-funded Planning and Local Governance Project in Albania, we worked to strengthen municipal capacity to meet goals under the Albania’s Territorial Administrative Reform. Our model strengthened municipal capacities in areas including budget preparation, property tax administration, and collection. We also used information and communications technology tools to improve customer service and utilize e-governance. These efforts resulted in many positive outcomes, especially an increase in revenues for many of the participating municipalities.

In addition, capacity building should address not only human resources, organizations, and institutional context, but also vertical and horizontal linkages to best improve service delivery, government-citizen engagement, public-private partnerships, and the scaling-up of innovations.

3. Engaging citizens by putting them first.

Decentralized governance and service delivery requires citizen participation and governing processes that are open, transparent, and inclusive. Improving relationships between citizens, civil society organizations, and their government means working simultaneously on state responsiveness and effectiveness, citizen empowerment, and accountability of local elected officials. While working in Colombia under the USAID-funded Consolidation and Enhanced Livelihood Initiative/Central Region project, our work was grounded in the principle that community perceptions and voices were the building blocks for achieving expected goals. Working closely with counterparts from the public and private sector, CELI-Central leveraged valuable resources, including from communities themselves.

PRODES works to improve waste management and other public services deliveries in Peru. Photo by: Tetra Tech

4. Promoting accountability and transparency is easier said than done.

While a decentralized structure matters for local service delivery, performance depends on holding local governments accountable. There are multiple channels and mechanisms of accountability, including elections, a participatory planning or budgeting process and social audits. In the USAID-funded Georgia Good Governance Initiative, we supported open government partnership initiatives in local governments, an innovation that was recently honored with an award from the Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency. OGP offered a means to promote citizens’ oversight, participatory budget, and policy transparency. In Albania’s PLGP, we also worked with municipalities on ICT-related initiatives designed to improve service delivery, making local government more accountable and responsive and strengthening local governance.

Transparency and access to information on local processes and decisions are essential for accountability. Together, accountability and transparency in service delivery can deliver multiple outcomes, including reducing the costs of transactions, strengthening organizational process for key services — prenatal care, delivery of school materials, and solid waste management, among others — and promoting uses of technology and open government principles. All of these results enhance service delivery and increase innovation.

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Through our work, we’ve found that ultimately service delivery in local governments succeeds when initiatives find win-win relationships between beneficiaries of public services and local governments. Improvements also rely on finding better ways to integrate the services that governments provide, taking into account the specific needs of different communities while offering readily accessible information to the public. Most importantly, strong citizen engagement mechanisms allow often-disenfranchised groups to have their voices heard, enabling them to contribute meaningfully to localized service provision.

In the long term, strengthening the resilience of the local space, and in particular that of growing secondary cities, is key for international stability. Not only are these cities poised to host large populations, but as the relationship between urban and rural areas continues to become increasingly blurred, secondary cities act as critical hinges linking rural areas and small towns with larger metropolitan areas. The efficiency and performance of secondary cities are crucial to the cohesion and stability of these territories and to national governance more broadly. Given their proximity to localized policy issues, local governance helps strengthen social cohesion and mobilize local capacities and assets. In this context, preventive support to bolster the capacity of local governments, particularly their ability to deliver basic services, is more essential than ever.  

To learn more about Tetra Tech’s democracy and governance work around the world, click here.

Tetra Tech's Alexandra Smith contributed to this sponsored guest column.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Gerardo Berthin

    Gerardo Berthin is a political scientist and a senior associate with Tetra Tech’s democracy and governance sector, international development services. Based in Burlington, Vermont, Gerardo manages projects and provides technical advice on issues related to local governance and decentralization, transparency and accountability, and conflict prevention. Prior to joining Tetra Tech, Gerardo was a governance policy adviser for the Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Programme. Gerardo has worked extensively across 40 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Africa.