In prominent aid literature, the binding of states and societies through the exchange of services in return for citizen compliance often lies at the heart of state-building models. Central to this is the idea that basic services—a function states are universally expected to perform—signals state responsiveness, that is, both the willingness and capacity of states to respond to their citizen's basic needs (Whaites 2008). One particular value of service delivery is that as a signal or measure of state performance, it is highly tangible, in terms of both its physical apparatus and its acute value in everyday life. Accordingly, the OECD (2011) describe public services as the visible link between what citizens give the state (taxation) and what they expect in return (some degree of well-being). In the hierarchy of political goods, services are meaningful for state–society relations because they give content to the social contract between ruler and ruled (Rotberg 2004, 2–3). Expressed differently, they are “the glue that binds state and society together” (Milliken and Krause 2002, 761).
In some aid models, not only does service delivery have direct effects on state legitimacy, but in turn this legitimacy affords the state greater capacity to rule (Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation [NORAD] 2009). The DFID (2010), for example, portrays a scenario in which states that respond to public expectations, including for basic services, set in motion a “virtuous circle” of state-building. In the DFID model, responsive services lay the basis for a more inclusive political settlement, strengthened state–society relations, and, over the long term, can address the underlying causes of fragility or conflict (DFID 2010). In the OECD's (2008) version of the virtuous circle, states with the requisite capacity to provide services in line with expectations are rewarded with increased citizen compliance with its laws and rules—crucially, tax compliance—which over time boosts state capacity to deliver services more effectively and, in turn, generates more legitimacy. In this way, the cycle of capacity, legitimacy and citizen compliance becomes self-reinforcing.
Another recurring theme is that among the multiple sources of legitimacy, service delivery falls squarely into the category of “performance legitimacy”—that is, a type of legitimacy dependent on the state's outputs (OECD 2011, 39). Some distinguish performance legitimacy from other sources of legitimacy derived from process, or how the state acquires power and conducts policymaking (Teskey, Schnell, and Poole 2012, 10). Writing for the Norwegian development agency (NORAD), Bellina et al. (2009) similarly categorize service delivery as falling into the discreet category of what the state produces, as distinct from how it functions, or the kinds of beliefs and shared community supporting the state's authority. Hence, to use Weber's (1962) well-known classification, service delivery is primarily seen as capable of building legitimacy of the “legal-rational” variety, that is, legitimacy derived not from charisma or tradition, but from functioning institutions.
While optimistic about the potential legitimizing effects of service delivery, development agencies are careful to acknowledge sources of legitimacy are context specific. Much of the aid literature adopts what might be termed an empirical definition of state legitimacy, one that stresses a regime is legitimate when people believe that no other authority would be superior, while avoiding venturing into the territory of what types of values and norms should underpin this belief (OECD 2010, 15).2 Accordingly, rather than there being a universal threshold of service access or coverage that can secure a state's legitimacy, it is the alignment between citizens' home-grown expectations of what the state should deliver and the state's capacity to meet these expectations that matters for legitimizing effects (Bellina et al. 2009; OECD 2008, 2011).
Questioning the Received Wisdom
The idea that services are a visible manifestation of the social contract resonates through research that positions service bureaucracy as the primary site where citizens are likely to encounter, and therefore subjectively judge, the state. Stuart Corbridge's (2005) seminal account of “seeing the state” in India is a widely cited case in point. He argues local services provide an opportunity for sightings of the state, and it is through these that people's expectations and interpretations of their broader rights and obligations with regard to the state are formed (Corbridge 2005). Others likewise see the state as largely meaningful to ordinary citizens when it is visible in localized practices (Gupta 1995). Studies of the attitudes and priorities of conflict-affected people have concluded that the degree to which state's meet citizens' everyday needs is an important component of their subjective assessment of it (Robins 2012, 4). From this perspective, positive encounters with frontline service officials might feasibly be a source of legitimacy for the state, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected situations where the state was previously mistrusted, or outright feared (Brinkerhoff, Wetterberg, and Dunn 2012, 279).
Likewise, one side of the virtuous circle posited in aid models is well established, that is, the proposition that legitimacy enhances capacity. The positive effects of the accrual of legitimacy on the capacity of states to govern and to generate development has been empirically demonstrated (Englebert 2002). Legitimacy enhances capacity because it makes citizens more likely to defer to decisions and it rules out of a sense of obligation, rather than through the threat (or exercise) of punishment or reward (Tyler 2006). Simply put, it makes ruling more efficient. The symbiotic relationship between a belief in the rightfulness of the state and citizen compliance underpins the stability of all political systems, and enables effective governance (Beetham 1991).
Arguments supporting the other side of the virtuous circle—that capacity necessarily enhances legitimacy—are typically more qualified. It is widely acknowledged that the significance of service delivery performance for state legitimacy is relative. While all definitions of legitimacy entail citizens evaluating whether or not the state is a proper, just, or rightful authority (Tyler 2006, 375), there are differing accounts of the importance of performance in this assessment. For Lipset (1984), legitimacy derives from a combination of effectiveness, the organization of political power, and how societies have historically resolved divisive issues. In his view, effectiveness and legitimacy are engaged in a continual balancing act: Powerful groups (e.g., military, business) may reject even a highly effective state if its basic values and symbolism does not fit with their own. This qualifies the legitimizing effects of service delivery by indicating these effects may depend on whose views count.
The relative effects of services on legitimacy can also be qualified in a temporal sense. Processes of legitimation can be thought of as the accrual of “goodwill” or loyalty to the state, which varies at any given moment in time (Gibson 2004, 289). A reservoir of legitimacy arguably affords the state better prospects of riding out periods of poor performance, without soliciting the withdrawal of consent (Gibson 2004, 289). From this perspective, whether or not a state's performance on service delivery affects its legitimacy may depend on the degree of legitimacy, or goodwill, it possessed in the first instance. Some maintain a chronic or acute breakdown in effectiveness would even endanger the stability of an otherwise highly legitimate state (Lipset 1984, 91). At a minimum, this is likely to be historically contingent on broader processes of legitimation.
The significance of service delivery for state legitimacy is also politically contingent. Scholars have questioned whether the means and ends of the “virtuous circle” are necessarily always virtuous (Brinkerhoff, Wetterberg, and Dunn 2012). Although from one perspective the physical presence of services might well signal state “responsiveness,” from another, more political perspective, they might form part of its coercive, political quest for preeminence. Tilly's (1992) seminal “coercion and capital” thesis illustrates that in Europe, the state's incentives to deliver basic services derived not from an altruistic quest for citizen well-being, but from the need to pacify them, so as to be able extract revenue to fund war. In Migdal's (2001) state in society approach, goods and services are conceptualized as part of a package of rewards, sanctions and symbols that the state ultimately provides in order to achieve social control. These coercive and controlling elements in the formation of social contracts are absent from mainstream development policy narratives. Van de Walle and Scott (2011) add another dimension, documenting how states have historically pursued service delivery for the purposes of penetration (establishing presence and visibility), standardization (quashing alternative power sources), and accommodation (creating loyalty, resolving disputes). Taken together, these insights call for a more political reading of the relationship between service delivery and state legitimacy, starting with the premise that legitimation processes are political struggles for order in social relations (Beetham 1991).
A further critique is that just as the institutional approach has dominated the state-building literature in general, the debate about service delivery as a source of state legitimacy has been colored by an institutional perspective. Situating service delivery within a hierarchy of state functions, as an output of an effective state apparatus, aligns with what Lemay-Hébert (2009) identifies as the dominant institutional approach to state-building, that is, one that views legitimacy as flowing automatically from functioning institutions. There are two potential challenges to this reductionist standpoint. The first is that pigeon-holing service delivery in the discrete category of performance legitimacy neutralizes it, underestimating the degree to which services might also conceivably act as a conduit for the state's norms and values, or what Gupta (1995) calls the “main myths and symbols” of the state. This has been argued with respect to health systems, for example, that “intentionally or not” may communicate the core values of the state to users, including its commitment to equity, transparency and accountability (Kruk et al. 2010, 94). In this way, service delivery is more than a question of the state's tangible functions and outputs, but also, to adopt a sociological perspective, a formative component of what Holsti calls the “idea of the state” (1996, 83). After all, as Migdal (2001, 6) argues, “societies are not, and cannot be bound only through material and instrumental relations” but also require “relational glue” in the form of common rules and meanings.
The second, related challenge to the reductionist approach is that ideology might shape citizens' perceptions of the state's performance. As vom Hau (2011) argues, an overemphasis on legitimacy as flowing directly from tangible outputs has diverted our attention away from this possibility. Legitimacy theory provides a strong foundation for the value of ideology in shaping belief; if legitimacy is fundamentally a belief in the rightfulness of the state's institutions (Beetham 1991), then those beliefs might conceivably be generated by deliberate cues and signals from those very institutions themselves. Lipset (1984, 86) specifically proposes legitimacy can be engineered by the state, dependent on its capacity to “engender and maintain the belief that existing institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for the society.” In this interpretation, legitimation is in the hands of the powerful (Beetham 1991, 9). Particularly in the era of the electronic public sphere, perceptions of performance may rely on effective public relations, as much as material rewards (Beetham 1991, 9). This theoretically opens up the possibility that the discourse used by political leaders to frame and justify service delivery might influence its significance for state legitimacy.
The Difficulties of Questioning the Received Wisdom
Empirical studies that could more rigorously interrogate the underpinnings of the received wisdom that services enhance state legitimacy remain scant, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected states (Brinkerhoff, Wetterberg, and Dunn 2012). In part, these limitations reflect the methodological challenges inherent in measuring legitimacy.
One of the central unresolved issues relates to whether legitimacy is best measured through people's perceptions of the state, or through their behavior toward it. If legitimacy is conceived essentially as a belief in the rightfulness of the state, then researchers necessarily have to control for the subjective origins of beliefs, and their heterogeneity. Particularly but not only in fragile and conflict-affected states, there may be a dearth of reliable public opinion data and, more fundamentally, even where it exists, people may fear reporting their actual perceptions of the state (Call and Cousens 2008, 15–16). According to Beetham (1991, 13), asking people whether they believe a particular institution is legitimate is misleading anyway: Not only are people unlikely to understand what “legitimacy” means, but the more demonstrable, behavioral markers of legitimacy—consent and compliance—are observable in the public sphere, not “in the recesses of people's minds.” For practical purposes, these observables may be a more measurable effect of legitimacy (Gilley 2006, 49), but they nevertheless do not have a direct relationship with it. As Schaar (1984) argues, states can achieve compliant behavior through coercion, and people can consent/not consent out of fear, including in situations where the state is illegitimate by any other measure. In other words, the entitlement or right to rule is not equivalent to deference to power (Schaar 1984). Another problem with measuring legitimacy is that it is difficult to differentiate between people's support for an incumbent government, or individual leaders, and the more fundamental question of whether they accept the state's institutions as right and proper (Guerrero 2011).
To date, research on the determinants of state legitimacy has broadly segmented between a group of scholars seeking to uncover its universal correlates and others who maintain that legitimacy is more intuitively understood by observing the texture of citizen–state relations at the microlevel. In other words, legitimacy has been studied from above and below. The methodological hallmark of the former approach has been large-scale, quantitative studies, which tend to support the view that no state relies on a single source of legitimacy. In these studies, it is sometimes difficult to isolate the effects of measures of service performance on state legitimacy, particularly where these are analyzed as one component of a larger set of other indicators of socioeconomic development. In his analysis of data from 72 countries, Gilley (2006), for example, concludes that combined indicators of welfare gains, good governance, and democratic rights, were “important correlates, and probably causes, of legitimacy” (Gilley 2006, 48).3 Other studies have found the effects of service provision on approval of and trust in the state (used as proxy variables4) to be indirect, mediated by other markers of well-being, including food security (Sacks 2009). While these studies indicate correlations between well-functioning services and state legitimacy, they invariably conclude more research is needed to examine the causal mechanisms that underlie these correlations. In essence, they cannot explain why services might enhance legitimacy, or what factors might influence any causal relationship between them.