Over the last two decades, efforts have been made to find the right formula or formulae for delivering services to poor rural communities. Beginning in the late 1980s, decentralisation entailing the dispersal of powers and redistribution of resources and responsibility for public goods provision from the centre to local authorities assumed centre stage in public administration. This was in reaction to what was widely agreed to be the failure by highly centralised governments in developing countries to deliver basic services to their citizens. The failure justified a shift away from centralised public administration systems to their decentralised variant, with democratic decentralisation as the strategy of choice for reformist governments across the developing world. Accompanying decentralisation as part of the broad good governance promotion were efforts to empower local communities to participate in decision-making processes as a strategy seeking to ensure both accountability of service providers to users, and ownership over public goods and the infrastructure through which they were supplied. There is broad agreement today that the hopes of the advocates and architects of these reforms were not fulfilled. On the contrary, many of the failures and weaknesses they were intended to address proved intractable, mostly for the same reasons highly centralised systems had failed to tackle them. Indeed, it was that very intractability that led to a renewed search for a new right formula and the eventual adoption of privatisation or public–private partnerships as an alternative or complement to public and community-driven actions. This article examines the evolution of these efforts in Rwanda and Uganda and analyses their impact in terms of outcomes in the water sector where private contractors were brought in to mediate between a decentralised state and community in the provision of safe water in rural areas. It argues that, as was the case with democratic decentralisation and associated popular participation, privatisation or public–private partnerships are in themselves not the answer to problems of maladministration and accompanying failures in service delivery. It demonstrates that ultimately, the key to effective public goods provision is capacity for vertical and horizontal co-ordination, inspection and supervision, and the strength of accountability enforcement mechanisms. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.