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Published on: 11/03/2014

At IRC we use the phrase "a service delivery approach" as shorthand for our belief that success in achieving universal access to water and sanitation requires a shift in focus: from delivering hardware through projects to delivering services to whole populations.  Adopting a service delivery approach implies emphasising the entire life-cycle of a service: both the hardware (engineering or construction elements) and software (capacity building, institutional support, financial planning) required to provide and sustain a certain level of access to water.  It also requires definition of the roles and responsibilities for multiple actors working at different institutional levels and improving lines of accountability, coordination and harmonisation among their activities.  Above all else, it requires the alignment of incentives - rewards and sanctions - to the delivery of service against agreed indicators that cover aspects like service quality and user satisfaction.

In the developing world, approximately one out of three rural water supply systems is not working at any one time. 

Why do we need a new approach to rural water supply and sanitation?

In the developing world, approximately one out of three rural water supply systems is not working at any one time. Failures on this scale represent hundreds of millions of dollars in wasted investment and millions of people having to fetch water from distant, unsafe sources – to the detriment of their health, education, and livelihoods.

True life-cycle costs are poorly understood and are not planned for – resulting in extended downtimes or complete abandonment of systems while funding for major repairs or replacement is sought.

The predominant community management model has limitations and is inherently un-scalable.

Donors and NGOs have often taken their own approach to implementing rural water-supply projects. This has meant systems are built without the supporting institutional structures needed to sustain long-term services, and that rural water sectors have not been strengthened, despite significant investment.

Service delivery vs. projects

In the current projectised approach, after construction of a new system, users have access to a given level of service. The new system initially functions well, but due to lack of support and proper asset management quickly starts to deteriorate until the service collapses completely. If the community it is intended to serve is lucky, it is revived at some time in the future or replaced by the construction of a new system, typically by another agency.

In a service delivery approach, once a water system has been constructed, the service is maintained indefinitely through a planned process of low-intensity administration and management, with occasional capital intensive interventions to upgrade the service level and to replace the hardware at the end of its designed lifetime. 

In a service delivery approach, once a water system has been constructed, the service is maintained indefinitely.

Operationalising a service delivery approach

Operationalising a service delivery approach requires action at multiple levels on the part of different actors. Change won't happen overnight, but using tools like the Triple-S principles framework, it is possible to make progress step by step. Some requirements for operationalising service delivery include:

  • Strong government leadership.
  • Process for evaluating what's working and what's not.
  • Mechanisms for communication and coordination between different levels and actors – national, local government, service provider (often community-based) and development partner (donors, NGOs).

Further concepts

The adoption of a focus on service delivery, also implies starting to work with a number of other concepts. These include:

  • Service delivery model. This refers to the way in which the different responsibilities around services are organised, typically indicating who is directly responsible for the daily tasks of operating, maintaining and administrating the services: the service provider; who is responsible for functions like planning, coordination, monitoring, oversight and support: the service authority, and the roles at the enabling environment such as investment planning and regulation. In addition, it defines then the level of service to which users are entitled, the broad costs of that, and often the main technologies through which such a service is to be provided.
  • Service levels. This indicates the characteristics of the service to which a user is entitled. For water this typically includes the quantity, quality, accessibility and continuity of the supply. For sanitation, it would refer to the adequate separation of faecal matter from human contact, the convenience of the sanitation service, and its environmental impact.
  • Service life-cycle. This is indicating all the stages in the life-cycle of a water or sanitation service. This starts with the well-known project cycle in which systems are built and service provision arrangements established. A second stage is the actual service delivery, in which the service operates, maintains and administers the service on a daily basis, with regular support if needed. A third stage is the moment of replacement of extension of the service.
  • Scale. The term scale is often understood in different ways in the sector, e.g. referring to the scale of intervention or economies of scale. We see the local government as the main unit of focus, in order to achieve sustainable services at scale.
  • Sustainability. We understand a service to be sustainable, if the agreed service level is provided, not only to the end of the life-span of the physical infrastructure, but forever, throughout the life-cycle of the service. 

These concepts are elaborated further in the notes linked to below. These also contain further explanation on how we understand related concepts such as institutional levels and scale and sustainability of services.

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