Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-7ccbd9845f-6pjjk Total loading time: 0.471 Render date: 2023-01-30T17:23:29.372Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Beyond state capacity: bureaucratic performance, policy implementation and reform

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 October 2020

Martin J. Williams*
Blavatnik School of Government, Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, University of Oxford, OxfordOX2 6GG, UK
Corresponding author. Email:


There is a broad consensus that state capacity is central to economic and institutional development. But while the concept originated as a tool for macro-historical and comparative analysis, its success has led the term ‘capacity’ to become a default metaphor for discussing the quality of government bureaucracies. This paper discusses the limitations to conceiving of narrower questions of bureaucratic performance and policy implementation through the lens of the broad, aggregate concept of capacity. Whereas capacity refers to bureaucracies' hypothetical potential, this usually differs from their actual actions due to internal information and incentive problems created by bureaucracies' collective nature, and the constraints and uncertainty imposed by their multiple political principals. Capacity is a convenient shorthand term and is appropriate for some purposes, but it achieves this convenience by abstracting away from the mechanisms that determine bureaucratic performance and policy implementation. To advance the study of bureaucratic quality, researchers should seek to understand the implications of bureaucracies' collective nature, engage with contextual specificity and contingency in policy implementation, and focus measurement and reform efforts more towards actual performance than hypothetical capacity.

Research Article
Copyright © Millennium Economics Ltd 2020

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Acemoglu, D. and Robinson, J. (2012), Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, New York: Crown Business.Google Scholar
Acemoglu, D., Garcı́ a-Jimeno, C. and Robinson, J. A. (2015), ‘State Capacity and Economic Development: A Network Approach’, American Economic Review, 105(8): 23642409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S. and Robinson, J. (2001), ‘The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation’, American Economic Review, 91(5): 13691401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alchian, A. A. and Demsetz, H. (1972), ‘Production, Information Costs, and Economic Organization’, American Economic Review, 62(5): 777795.Google Scholar
An, Y., Garvin, M. J. and Hall, R. P. (2017), ‘Pathways to Better Project Delivery: The Link between Capacity Factors and Urban Infrastructure Projects in India’, World Development, 94: 393405.Google Scholar
Andrews, M., Pritchett, L. and Woolcock, M. (2017), Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ang, Y. Y. (2017), How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, Cornell: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
Anthopolous, L., Reddick, C. G., Giannakidou, I. and Mavridis, N. (2016), ‘Why e-Government Projects Fail? An Analysis of the Website’, Government Information Quarterly, 33: 161173.Google Scholar
Ashraf, N. and Bandiera, O. (2017), ‘Social Incentives in Organizations’, Mimeo.Google Scholar
Baker, B. (2009), ‘Resource Constraint and Policy in Liberia's Post-Conflict Policing’, Police Practice and Research, 11(3): 184196.Google Scholar
Bandiera, O., Barankay, I. and Rasul, I. (2009), ‘Social Connections and Incentives in the Workplace: Evidence From Personnel Data’, Econometrica, 77(4): 10471094.Google Scholar
Baser, H. and Morgan, P. (2008), ‘Capacity, Change and Performance’, Discussion Paper 59B, ECDPM.Google Scholar
Bersch, K., Praça, S. and Taylor, M. (2016), ‘State Capacity, Bureaucratic Politicization, and Corruption in the Brazilian State’, Governance, 30(1): 105124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bertelli, A., Hassan, M., Honig, D., Rogger, D. and Williams, M. J. (2020), ‘An Agenda for the Study of Public Administration in Developing Countries’, Governance, 33(4): 735748.Google Scholar
Bertrand, M., Burgess, R., Chawla, A. and Xu, G. (2020), ‘The Glittering Prizes: Career Incentives and Bureaucrat Performance’, The Review Of Economic Studies, 87(2): 626655.Google Scholar
Besley, T. and Persson, T. (2009), ‘The Origins of State Capacity: Property Rights, Taxation, and Politics’, American Economic Review, 99(4): 1218–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Besley, T. and Persson, T. (2011), Pillars of Prosperity: The Political Economics of Development Clusters, Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Best, M. C., Hjort, J. and Szakonyi, D. (2018), Individuals and Organizations as Sources of State Effectiveness, December 21.Google Scholar
Blader, S., Gartenberg, C. and Prat, A. (2019), ‘The Contingent Effect of Management Practices’, Review of Economic Studies, 87(2): 721749.Google Scholar
Bloom, N., Lemos, R., Sadun, R. and Van Reenen, J. (2014), ‘Does Management Matter in Schools’, NBER Working Paper 20667.Google Scholar
Bockstael, E. (2017), ‘Critical Capacity Development: An Action Research Approach in Coastal Brazil’, World Development, 94: 336345.Google Scholar
Bologna Pavlik, J. and Young, A. T. (2020), ‘Medieval European Traditions in Representation and State Capacity Today’, Mimeo, February.Google Scholar
Brieba, D. (2018), ‘State Capacity and Health Outcomes: Comparing Argentina's and Chile's Reduction of Infant and Maternal Mortality, 1960–2013’, World Development, 101: 3753.Google Scholar
Brinkerhoff, D. and Morgan, P. (2010), ‘Capacity and Capacity Development: Coping With Complexity’, Public Administration and Development, 30: 210.Google Scholar
Bruszt, L. and Campos, N. F. (2019), ‘Economic Integration and State Capacity’, Journal of Institutional Economics, 15: 449468.Google Scholar
Brynjolfsson, E. and Milgrom, P. (2013), ‘Complementarity in Organizations’, in Gibbons, R., and Roberts, J. (eds.), The Handbook of Organizational Economics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 1155.Google Scholar
Carpenter, D. P. (2001), The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862–1928, Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Carrera, L. and Dunleavy, P. (2010) ‘Why Does Productivity Vary Across NHS Hospital Trusts in England? Untangling How Management Competence and the Use of ICTs Shape Hospitals’ Performance’, LSE Public Policy Group Mimeo, March.Google Scholar
Centeno, M., Kohli, A. and Yashar, D. (eds.). (2017), States in the Developing World, Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N. and Rockoff, J. E. (2014), ‘Measuring the Impacts of Teachers I: Evaluating Bias in Teacher Value-Added Estimates’, American Economic Review, 104(9): 25932632.Google Scholar
Chuaire, M. F., Scartasini, C. and Tommasi, M. (2017), ‘State Capacity and the Quality of Policies. Revisiting the Relationship Between Openness and Government Size’, Economics and Politics, 29(2): 133156.Google Scholar
Cingolani, L. (2013), ‘The State of State Capacity: A Review of Concepts, Evidence and Measures’, AFD-MGSoG UNU-Merit Working Paper Series on Institutions and Economic Growth.Google Scholar
Cingolani, L. (2019), ‘The Role of State Capacity in Development Studies’, Journal of Development Perspectives, 2(1–2): 88114.Google Scholar
Cole, W. (2015), ‘Mind the Gap: State Capacity and the Implementation of Human Rights Treaties’, International Organization, 69(2): 405441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Coleman, J. S. (1982), The Asymmetric Society, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.Google Scholar
Cyert, R. and March, J. (1963), Behavioral Theory of the Firm, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
Department for International Development (2009), ‘Political Economy Analysis How To Note’, July.Google Scholar
Dincecco, M. and Katz, G. (2014), ‘State Capacity and Long-Run Economic Performance’, The Economic Journal, 126(590): 189218.Google Scholar
Dixit, A. (1996), The Making of Economic Policy: A Transaction-Cost Politics Perspective, London: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dixit, A. (2002), ‘Incentives and Organizations in the Public Sector: An Interpretative Review’, The Journal of Human Resources, 37(4): 696727.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dunleavy, P. (1995), ‘Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK's Record’, Public Policy and Administration, 10(2): 5270.Google Scholar
Englehart, N. (2009), ‘State Capacity, State Failure, and Human Rights’, Journal of Peace Research, 46(2): 163180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Evans, P. and Rauch, J. (1999), ‘Bureaucracy and Growth: A Cross-National Analysis of the Effects of “Weberian” State Structures on Economic Growth’, American Sociological Review, 64(5): 748765.Google Scholar
Fenizia, A. (2020), ‘Managers and Productivity in the Public Sector'. Mimeo, 29 June.Google Scholar
Finan, F., Olken, B. and Pande, R. (2017), ‘The Personnel Economics of the State’, in Banerjee, A. V., and Duflo, E. (eds.), Handbook of Economic Field Experiments, Oxford: North-Holland, pp. 467514.Google Scholar
Friedman, J. (2011), ‘Building civilian police capacity: Post-conflict Liberia, 2003–2011’, Innovations for Successful Societies.Google Scholar
Garicano, L. and Rayo, L. (2016), ‘Why Organizations Fail: Models and Cases’, Journal of Economic Literature, 54(1): 137192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gibbons, R. and Henderson, R. (2013), ‘What Do Managers Do?’, in Gibbons, R., and Roberts, J. (eds.), The Handbook of Organizational Economics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 680731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gingerich, D. (2013), ‘Governance Indicators and the Level of Analysis Problem: Empirical Findings From South America’, British Journal of Political Science, 43(3): 505540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Grindle, M. (1997), ‘Divergent Cultures? When Public Organizations Perform Well in Developing Countries’, World Development, 25(4): 481495.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gulzar, S. and Pasquale, B. (2017), ‘Politicians, Bureaucrats, and Development: Evidence From India’, American Political Science Review, 111(1): 162183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hanson, J. and Sigman, R. (2019), ‘Leviathan's Latent Dimensions: Measuring State Capacity for Comparative Political Research’, Mimeo, June.Google Scholar
Harbers, I. (2015), ‘Taxation and the Unequal Reach of the State: Mapping State Capacity in Ecuador’, Governance, 28(3): 373391CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hendrix, C. (2010), ‘Measuring State Capacity: Theoretical and Empirical Implications for the Study of Civil Conflict’, Journal of Peace Research, 47(3): 273285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hills, A. (2007), ‘Police Commissioners, Presidents and the Governance of Security’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 45(3): 403423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holmstrom, B. (1979), ‘Moral Hazard and Observability’, Bell Journal of Economics, 10(1): 7491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holmstrom, B. and Milgrom, P. (1991), ‘Multitask Principal-Agent Analyses: Incentive Contracts, Asset Ownership, and Job Design’, The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 7(special issue): 2452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Honig, D. (2018), Navigation by Judgment: Why and When Top Down Management of Foreign Aid Doesn't Work, Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Horton, D., Alexaki, A., Bennet-Lartey, S., Noële Brice, K., Campilan, D., Carden, F., De Souza Silva, J., Duong, L. T., Kadar, I., Maestrey Boza, A., Kayes Muniruzzaman, I., Perez, J., Somarriba Chang, M., Vernooy, R. and Watts, J. (2003), ‘Evaluating Capacity Development: Experiences from Research and Development Organizations Around the World’, ISNAR/CTA, IDRC.Google Scholar
Johnson, N. and Koyama, M. (2017), ‘States and Economic Growth: Capacity and Constraints’, Explorations in Economic History, 64: 120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kaufmann, D., Kraay, A. and Mastruzzi, M. (2010), ‘The Worldwide Governance Indicators Methodology and Analytical Issues’, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5430.Google Scholar
Khan, A., Khwaja, A. I. and Olken, B. (2018), ‘Making Moves Matter: Experimental Evidence on Incentivizing Bureaucrats Through Performance-Based Postings’, NBER Working Paper 24383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Leaver, C., Lemos, R. and Scur, D. (2019), ‘Measuring and Explaining Management in Schools: New Approaches Using Public Data’, Centre for Economic Policy Research Discussion Paper DP14069, October.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lee, M., Walter-Drop, G. and Wiesel, J. (2014), ‘Taking the State (Back) Out? Statehood and the Delivery of Collective Goods’, Governance, 27(4): 635654.Google Scholar
Leibenstein, H. (1966), ‘Allocative Efficiency vs “X-Efficiency”’, American Economic Review, 56(3): 392415.Google Scholar
Leonard, D. (2010), ‘Pockets’ of Effective Agencies in Weak Governance States: Where Are They Likely and Why Does It Matter?’, Public Administration and Development, 30: 91101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
List, C. and Pettit, P. (2011), Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents, Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mann, M. (1984), ‘The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results’, European Journal of Sociology, 25(2): 185213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Martinez, E. A., Beaulieu, N., Gibbons, R., Pronovost, P. and Wang, T. (2015), ‘Organizational Culture and Performance’, American Economic Review: Papers Proceedings, 105(5): 331335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McDonnell, E. (2017), ‘Patchwork Leviathan: How Pockets of Bureaucratic Governance Flourish Within Institutionally Diverse Developing States’, American Sociological Review, 82(3): 476510.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McDonnell, E. (2020), Patchwork Leviathan: Pockets of Bureaucratic Effectiveness in Developing States, Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Medie, P. (2018), Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence Against Women in Africa, Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Ménard, C. (2014), ‘Embedding Organizational Arrangements: Towards A General Model’, Journal of Institutional Economics, 10(4): 567589.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Miller, G. and Whitford, A. B. (2016), Above Politics: Bureaucratic Discretion and Credible Commitment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Mkandawire, T. (2017), ‘State Capacity, History, Structure, and Political Contestation in Africa’, in Centeno, M., Kohli, A., and Yashar, D. (eds.), States in the Developing World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 184216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Moreno, J., Noguchi, L. and Harder, M. (2017), ‘Understanding the Process of Community Capacity Building: A Case Study of Two Programs in Yunnan Province, China’, World Development, 97: 122137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Morgan, P. J. (2003), ‘One more time: just how should we think about the concept of capacity?' ECDPM Occasional Paper No. 1. European Centre for Development Policy Management: Maastricht, The Netherlands; draft, November.Google Scholar
Muralidharan, K., Niehaus, P. and Sukhtankar, S. (2016), ‘Building State Capacity: Evidence From Biometric Smartcards in India’, American Economic Review, 106(10): 28952929.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Nelson, R. and Winter, S. (1982), An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Niskanen, W. (1968), ‘The Peculiar Economics of Bureaucracy’, The American Economic Review, 58(2): 293305.Google Scholar
North, D., Wallis, J. J. and Weingast, B. (2009), Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2006), ‘The Challenge of Capacity Development: Working Towards Good Practice’, DAC Guidelines and Reference Series.Google Scholar
Pepinsky, T., Pierskalla, J. and Sacks, A. (2017), ‘Bureaucracy and Service Delivery’, Annual Review of Political Science, 20: 249268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Prendergast, C. (2003), ‘The Limits of Bureaucratic Efficiency’, Journal of Political Economy, 111(5): 929958.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pressman, J. L. and Wildavsky, A. (1973), Implementation, Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Rasul, I. and Rogger, D. (2018), ‘Management of Bureaucrats and Public Service Delivery: Evidence From the Nigerian Civil Service’, Economic Journal, 128(608): 413446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rasul, I., Rogger, D. and Williams, M. J. (forthcoming), ‘Management, Organizational Performance, and Task Clarity: Evidence From Ghana's Civil Service’, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory.Google Scholar
Salter, A. W. and Young, A. T. (2018), ‘A Theory of Self-Enforcing Monetary Constitutions with Reference to the Suffolk System, 1825–1858’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 156: 1322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Salter, A. W. and Young, A. T. (2019), ‘Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations’, Social Science Quarterly, 100(4): 12411253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schein, E. H. (1985), Organizational Culture and Leadership, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
Shavell, S. (1979), ‘Risk Sharing and Incentives in the Principal and Agent Relationship’, Bell Journal of Economics, 10(1): 5573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shepsle, K. (1992), ‘Congress is a “They,” Not an “It”: Legislative Intent as Oxymoron’, International Review of Law and Economics, 12(2): 239256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Skocpol, T. (1985), ‘Bringing the State Back in: Strategies of Analysis in Current Research’, in Evans, P., Rueschemeyer, D. and Skocpol, T. (eds.), Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Soifer, H. (2008), ‘State Infrastructural Power: Approaches to Conceptualization and Measurement’, Studies in Comparative International Development, 43: 231251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tendler, J. (1997), Good Government in the Tropics, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
Teskey, G. (2012), ‘Notes on Capacity Development – with a Focus on Fragile and Conflict-Affected States’, World Bank.Google Scholar
Thompson, L. (2013), ‘ Diagnosis: The Government Broke Every Rule of Project Management’, Forbes Magazine, December 3, (accessed September 20, 2017).Google Scholar
Tilly, C. (ed.). (1975), The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Tuomela, R. (1991), ‘We Will Do It: An Analysis of Group Intentions’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 51(2): 249277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ubels, J., Acquaye-Baddoo, N.-A. and Fowler, A. (eds.). (2010), Capacity Development in Practice, London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
Ubels, J., Acquaye-Baddoo, N.-A. and Fowler, A. (eds.). (2016), Capacity Development in Practice, London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
United States Agency for International Development (2017), ‘Local Capacity Development Suggested Approaches: An Additional Help Document for ADS 201’, 13 January.Google Scholar
Weaver, J. (2020), ‘Jobs for Sale: Corruption and Misallocation in Hiring’, Mimeo, July.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Weingast, B. and Marshall, W. (1988), ‘The Industrial Organization of Congress; or, Why Legislatures, Like Firms, Are Not Organized as Markets’, Journal of Political Economy, 96(1): 132163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Whitford, A. (2005), ‘The Pursuit of Political Control by Multiple Principals’, Journal of Politics, 67(1): 2949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, M. J. (2017), ‘The Political Economy of Unfinished Development Projects: Corruption, Clientelism, or Collective Choice?’, American Political Science Review, 111(4): 705723.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilson, J. (1989), Bureaucracy, New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
World Bank (2016), Towards a New Approach to Capacity Building in Africa, Mimeo: World Bank.Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Beyond state capacity: bureaucratic performance, policy implementation and reform
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Beyond state capacity: bureaucratic performance, policy implementation and reform
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Beyond state capacity: bureaucratic performance, policy implementation and reform
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *