• State-building;
  • nation-building;
  • fragile states;
  • public-service delivery;
  • state penetration;
  • accommodation;
  • standardised services

Concerns about failed and fragile states have put state- and nation-building firmly on the academic and policy agenda, but the crucial role of public services in this process has remained underexplored. The 1960s and ‘70s generated a substantial set of literature that is largely missing from current writing. It identified state penetration, standardisation and accommodation as key processes in the state- and nation-building sequence. This article analyses these three processes in Western Europe in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and the role of public services therein, to explore how they may help us to understand the success and failure of state- and nation-building in developing countries and fragile states.