This article identifies the leaders, the supporters and the resisters of public service reform. It adopts a principal–agent framework, comparing reality with an ‘ideal’ situation in which citizens are the principals over political policy-makers as their agents, and policy-makers are the principals over public service officials as their agents. Reform in most developing countries is complicated by an additional set of external actors — international financial institutions and donors. In practice, international agencies and core government officials usually act as the ‘principals’ in the determination of reforms. The analysis identifies the interests involved in reform, indicating how the balance between them is affected by institutional and sectoral factors. Organizational reforms, particularly in the social sectors, present greater difficulties than first generation economic policy reforms.