Comparative Capacity Development

  • Svetlana InkinaEmail author
Living reference work entry



State capacity refers to the “institutional core” of state power, which is the ability of the state and its agents to carry out policies and deliver public goods. State capacity may be described as an operationalized measure of state power, which refers to the ability of the state to sustain itself and induce compliance of state subjects.

Introduction: Background Concept

Good living conditions (e.g., safety, employment, housing) are fundamental to the well-being of people. These conditions result from economic prosperity, individual rights, public goods, and quality governance, which emerge as a result of a complex interplay among large-scale changes and the strategic interaction of people with institutions. The discussion has not yet been settled around the question of how much state power is required vis-à-vis other societal forces to maintain a well-functioning democracy. Failure to respond to economic crises or deliver public goods may result in the loss of internalized faith in government (the loss of legitimacy). On the other hand, the overdevelopment of state institutions may distort the incentive structure behind the formation of a viable political and economic system.

State capacity is a crucial concept in political science literature. It refers to the process of state building, e.g., the construction of the state defined by its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence on a given territory. According to McAdam et al. (2001, 78), state capacity is the “degree of control that state agents exercise over persons, activities, and resources within their government’s territorial jurisdiction,” and therefore, it is highly important for measuring state effectiveness.

The discussion of state capacity gained momentum during the 1970s and 1980s, when the state was no longer treated as a symbolic arena for non-state actors. This “statist” movement – also described as “Bringing the State Back In” (BTSBI) – responded to the weaknesses of pluralist accounts arguing that political power was widely dispersed rather than centered in a limited number of institutions embracing all sorts of management and control mechanisms. Instead, this approach argued that the state can act as an autonomous, uniform, and effective actor triggering economic growth. The view advanced by “statist” scholars responded to the observed conundrums of economic development, such as the growing number of “failed states” (see Helman and Ratner 1992), the unequal performance of emerging economies, the collapse of Communism, and the difficulties of democratization and state-building processes observed all over the world. The views of BTSBI theorists were analytically distinct from Marxist views on economic formation as the decisive factor of power relations, or an elite approach, which focused on circulation and reproduction elites rather than their capacity to act or regulate policy domains.

Academic efforts to conceptualize state power and state capacity started early in modern history. A number of authoritative scholars, such as Talcott Parsons, Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber, Peter M. Blau, Raymond Aron, and others, elaborated on the concept of state power defining it, in generic terms, as the chance or probability of imposing one’s will upon the behavior of other persons. Since then, the concept of state capacity has been developed both empirically and theoretically.

Not all academic scholarship, however, has focused on the concept of state capacity exclusively. Instead, alternative concepts were developed, such as state strength (Migdal 1988), state power (Tilly 1975; Mann 1984; Skocpol 1979), government effectiveness (Rothstein 2011), etc., which all describe the ability of the state to sustain itself, execute policies, and deliver public goods.

It is now recognized that some level of state capacity is necessary for democratic consolidation process to occur (democracy is not possible when institutions are not in place) (Carothers 2002; Diamond 2000; Fukuyama 2004). In this context, it is acknowledged that there are weak and strong states operating within the confines of strong and weak societies.

High-capacity states provide conditions necessary for economic development, such as regulation, property rights, law enforcement, bureaucratic training, social and economic infrastructure, and other public goods, such as education, health care, and human security. By contrast, low-capacity states provide insufficient conditions for development or do not fulfill their obligations fully, which results in the declining levels of trust in government, economic underdevelopment, and even state failure (Rotberg 2003; Skocpol 1979).

Competing theories of state power (class theory, elite theory, pluralist, and gender theories) inform the discussion of state capacity as an explanatory variable of political relations. Elite theorists, for example, observed that power is exercised by the upper-level social groups who may be identified as leaders in a given field of competence (see Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetana Mosca). Elite groups, in view of the above researchers, may not necessarily seize control over the means of production. Instead, these are bureaucrats and other influential groups that may be divided into the subgroups of governing and non-governing elites.

Both Marx (1967) and Weber (1947) argued that modern states tend to be over bureaucratized and, as a result, use public bureaucracy as a powerful instrument of political management, manipulation, and repressive control (Farazmand 2010). However, unlike Marx (the founder of class theory), Weber argued that bureaucratic organization is one of the most efficient forms of organization.

Finally, the “discursive” elements of state power were propagated by social constructivist theories, such as gender theory, arguing that the relationships of power are reproduced with the use of informal norms and means, such as communication and culture. The discursive elements of state power were taken for granted by structural accounts of power arrangements. However, all these theories agreed on the possibility of instrumental use of power. The meaning of power varies, depending on a historical context and limitations of relevant political science scholarship.

The concept of state capacity promises to narrow the definition of state power to the concept that may be measured either as a uniform or nonuniform entity. The state, for example, may be defined as a set of organizations (or organizational capacities) invested with authority to make binding decisions. This view of the state implies that the state is by no means a uniform entity. Various dimensions of state power may reinforce each other or “steal resources” from other dimensions of state capacity depending on the type of administrative policy enacted by the top-level decision-makers.

Directions of Research

The discussion of state capacity vis-à-vis policy implementation process allows identifying several important directions of scholarly research:
  1. 1.

    The first direction concerns state power and state domination – the core subject of state capacity literature. Weber defined the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Weber 1946, 77–128). Accordingly, two forms of state domination were identified based on coercive means of compliance and non-coercive means of compliance (authority). State power, in Weber’s view, is exercised via bureaucracy, which means that the more professional bureaucracy is the more authoritative the state is. Thus, unlike Foucault, who argued that power penetrates every single aspect of our daily lives, Weber suggests that state agents use power instrumentally.


In line with Weber’s distinction of violent and nonviolent means of domination, Michael Mann (1986) identified two forms of power, e.g., despotic and infrastructural power. Despotic power referred to state’s capacity to enforce legislation without routine negotiation with civil society groups (in other terms, it may be described as repression), while infrastructural power concerns state penetration, its operational capacity influencing implementation of public policies. The notion of infrastructural power triggered academic debate on state capacity. However, this concept is rarely referred to as “capacity to implement policies,” or “policy-making capacity,” which could be described as an equivalent of and an operationalization measure of infrastructural power described by Mann.

Nearly all scholars belonging to the group of “Bringing the State Back In” (BTSBI) discussed various forms of non-coercive forms of compliance due to the increasingly sophisticated means of state domination.

Margaret Levi, for example, examined such forms of non-coercive compliance as quasi-voluntary compliance, consent, and legitimacy (Levi 1989). She and other scholars (cf. Evans et al. 1985) associated non-coercive forms of compliance with the means used by the state to sustain itself (e.g., fiscal capacity).

Charles Tilly advanced an argument that “war made the state” (Tilly 1975, 42). However, his research accounted for the ways in which European powers engaged in efforts to mobilize resources and thus sustain themselves financially.
  1. 2.

    The second direction of research observed within the BTSBI literature concerns state’s relationship to other forces. Several issues have been discussed here: first, how autonomous the state shall be to exercise power and, second, how effective the state can be when it extends its power over community of non-state actors or when it fails to do so (see Ottervik 2013).


Barbara Geddes in the Politician’s Dilemma (1996) defined state capacity as the implementation power of the state, which falls under the category of bureaucratic capacity. Bureaucracy, in Geddes’ view, has to be insulated (autonomous) from political pressures and adheres to merit-based principles, in order to achieve substantial outcomes. However, bureaucratic autonomy is largely impeded by the dilemmas political actors face when appointing top-level bureaucrats. Among such dilemmas influencing bureaucratic quality are leaders’ career incentives, leaders’ position within the party, party discipline, party’s age, and the distribution of parliamentary seats.

It is noteworthy that the literature on state-society relationship has moved gradually from “state versus society” dilemma (or state against society) to “state-in-society” perspective. For example, Joel Migdal in Strong Societies and Weak States (1988) outlined a reverse relationship between state capacity and community capacity. State and society, in Migdal’s view, compete in public arena. Therefore, the stronger social organizations are, the less likely the government will dominate the entire process of policy-making. The interaction of the state and society, in Migdal’s view, creates several possible outcomes: (1) a full subjugation of social forces characterized by a total transformation of society, (2) state incorporation of social forces and subsequent mutual transformation, (3) adaptation of social forces to state’s presence with partial incorporation of social forces, and finally, (4) the failure of the state to penetrate society with little transformative effect of the state on society. Similar to Mann (1986), Migdal defined state capacity as power. This take on state capacity was different from the view advanced by Skocpol (1979) and Geddes (1996) who defined state capacity as state autonomy or the refinement of state bureaucracy.
  1. 3.

    Finally, the third issue concerns the role of the state in economic development and the effects of public investment on state capacity development. During the mid-1990s, there has been an increased interest in state industrial policies. Useful analytical insights transpired outlining various institutional conditions that make structural transformation (industrial growth) possible. Peter Evans (1995), for example, argued that institutional structures in place affect economic growth. Among such factors is “state embedded autonomy,” which is based on states’ organizational coherence (insulation from external pressures influencing the decision-making and implementation capacity) and its connectedness to other societal forces within the industrial sector. Evans identified predatory, intermediate, or developmental types of states. The state was referred to as an autonomous actor whose effectiveness requires a certain condition to be reached that would allow state actors gaining information about other actors and using it effectively with the goals of economic development in mind (state “embeddedness,” in this context, meant knowledge about other important industrial players).


In a similar vein, Linda Weiss (1998) observed variation in the developmental capacity of emerging and thriving economies. Based on the case studies of Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, and Germany, she identified two types of developmental capacity, e.g., transformative and distributive capacity. Taiwan and South Korea, in her view, represented the cases of the former type; Sweden represented the case of the latter model; finally, Japan and Germany represented a combination of both models.

The relationship of the state vis-à-vis other societal forces remains highly contested. Some authors refer to the state as a uniform entity. However, a growing consensus has emerged over time around the state as a “set of organizations invested with the authority to make binding decisions for people and organizations juridically located in a particular territory and to implement these decisions using, if necessary, force” (Rueschemeyer and Evans 1985, 46–47).

The view of state capacity as a multidimensional concept responds to criticisms arguing that the dichotomy of “weak” and “strong” is likelier to obscure rather than reveal something. In fact, the observed facets of institutional capabilities allow accounting for various dimensions of state power.

The movement toward a more nuanced and differentiated view of the state may be observed with reference to the discussion of bureaucratic transformative capacity. To remind, Weber claimed that power comes into existence with the use of bureaucratic instruments, where bureaucracy is an instrument of power.

In this context, Knill (1999) suggests that state bureaucracy is not a uniform entity; it is normally split into groups with distinct transformative capacities, which influence their ability to access policy-making decisions. Capacities of national bureaucracies are defined as a combination of political factors, such as the strength of the executive, the amount of discretionary power allocated to regional and local bureaucracies, the unity of the regional elites, and the ability of such elites to influence policy-making decisions. Therefore, among crucial factors influencing state capacity to implement policies are the existing administrative structure and the national political system.

Based on the cases of Great Britain and Germany, Knill (1999) outlines two varieties of transformative capacity observed in national bureaucracies. The first type is the type of instrumental bureaucracy, which is characterized by the lower number of veto players in a political system and the increased level of political centralization (unitary administrative systems). The second type is the type of autonomous bureaucracy, characterized by the dispersion of power across public space and a variety of bureaucracies acting as the locus of national identity formation. The typology offered by Knill is based on the opposition of common law tradition and civil law (continental) tradition, where the second type is less prone to massive changes in a short period of time. Conditions that help determine the transformative capacity of national and regional bureaucracies may include the way in which power is divided between political elites and civil servants (politician-civil servant nexus), the independent political power of regional bureaucracies, organizational attributes, corruption, clientelism, and so forth.

The discussion of transformative capacities of national and subnational bureaucracies did not receive much attention due to the difficulties of operationalization and measuring institutions in flux.

Operationalizing and Measuring State Capacity

It is noteworthy that there have been just a few efforts to operationalize and measure state capacity. Cross-country measures of state capacity are nearly absent in public debate. Meanwhile, the discussion of state capacity is important for the study of government performance, including the success or failure of policy-making efforts in a public sector.

One of the many possible indicators of state’s capacity to act effectively is the Government Effectiveness Index (GEI), calculated annually by the World Bank (for more information, see World Bank Governance Indicators). This index is used in reference to many diverse phenomena, which is the reason it is criticized for the lack of accuracy in its assessment of real-life phenomena, e.g., measurement validity (see Andrews 2007).

Savoia and Sen (2013) define state capacity as “the institutional capability of the state to carry out various policies that deliver benefits and services to households and firms” (Besley and Persson 2011, 2). As a way of measurement and operationalization, they offer the distinction among the following dimensions of states’ institutional capability:
  1. 1.

    Bureaucratic and administrative capacity – this concept reflects upon the level of competence of national bureaucracies, their ability to implement rules and regulations, especially in the area of spending revenues on public goods (e.g., Evans and Rauch 1999; Knill 1999).

  2. 2.

    Legal capacity – this concept includes regulatory capacity and effectiveness of state regulation based on evidence-based policy-making practices; law enforcement capacity, including rule of law, mechanisms for resolving disputes, law enforcement, and an effective judicial system; and security and protection of state borders.

  3. 3.

    Infrastructural capacity – this dimension refers to state operational capacity, the territorial reach of the state (state penetration), i.e., the presence of organizations representing the state within historically established borders (see Mann 1986; Soifer 2008).

  4. 4.

    Fiscal capacity is the state’s ability to sustain itself through wealth, raise revenues, avoid fiscal crime, and minimize economic crime, such as tax evasion, in a contemporary context (see Levi 1989).

  5. 5.

    Military capacity refers to country’s external security, state action beyond national borders, with the use of military force, state alliances, and state’s ability to use police and military forces that can repress insurgent groups (Tilly 1975; Mann 1986; Hendrix 2010).


Public goods described in this classification system require state interference due to collective action problem, inspired by the very nature of benefits involved in the realization of relevant policies. Public goods are not always well suited for private regulation. That is, at the very basic level, the state is expected to guarantee property rights, protection of citizens from unlawful actions, security, and minimum social rights for its citizens, even in cases where resources are scarce or the state needs to outsource its services (see Besley and Persson 2011).

Measurements of state capacity rely on official documents, such as national statistics; fiscal reports on spending, etc.; and expert opinion surveys. Surveys are useful in cases, where official statistics does not fully account for the observed variables or whenever official statistics intentionally or unintentionally distorts information. Evans and Rauch (1999), for example, use expert surveys to conduct cross-nation comparisons of bureaucratic capacity measured as merit-based personnel policies. These measures relate to the conditions of professional bureaucracy outlined by Max Weber.

One of the most distinctive features of all research dealing with state capacity is its exclusive focus on policy implementation stage, without any reference to the process of policy formulation or the level of policy-makers’ expertise. In this context, it is worth exploring not only the extent to which the government fulfills its role in the area of law enforcement or revenue accumulation, but rather the processes of agenda-setting and policy formulation, where significant battles occur around policy goals and mistakes, which underlie policy-makers’ perceptions of cause-and-effect relationships about policy problems, happen.

State Capacity Vis-à-Vis Policy Implementation Framework

During the 1990s, there were a limited number of efforts made by academics to link the discussion of state capacity to policy implementation framework. Thomas and Grindle (1994), in particular, argued that successful implementation requires a good strategy, but also massive resource inputs, which have to rely on appropriate structural conditions, such as regime stability and state legitimacy. First, if regime is stable, it is more likely to generate wide-ranging support for the program. Second, if it depends on a few extremely powerful interest groups (such as in case of state capture), it would be more difficult to ensure consensus among the top-level political elites concerning the goals of reform.

The discussion continued with the assessment of features describing “difficult” policy areas which require greater political investments. Among such features are concentration of costs in government, dispersion of benefits (long-term effects of the proposed policy changes), high administrative and technical content (technically complex areas requiring coordination), limited public participation, and long duration of the reform process (Thomas and Grindle 1994, 53–64).

The assessment of the political resource needed to support reform program in such areas requires consideration of who supports and opposes reform program, as well as the degree of support required for reforms to take place. In addition to the political support, bureaucratic, financial, and technical resources must be evaluated.

A number of scholars working within the stream of policy implementation research elaborated on a variety of conditions that make policy change possible. Sabatier (1986), for example, summarized these conditions as follows: clear and consistent objectives, adequate causal theory, coherent legislative framework, implementation processes organized in a way so as to induce compliance by implementing officials, reform funding, reform communication strategy, professional civil servants, support of elites and interest groups involved in the process, and structural and contextual changes that do not threaten political support or causal theory (Sabatier 1986, 24–25).

Interestingly, scholars working within the field of policy implementation analysis scrutinized mainly noneconomic and nonindustrial policies of emerging economies. However, some of the insights gained in this process could be usefully applied to observe the process and outcomes of industrial growth across nations.

Contextual variables of policy implementation process outlined by policy implementation theorists include a wide range of material, structural, and ideational prerequisites of the reform. Most broadly, these conditions could be defined as the level of economic development (material resources required to material policy goals), political institutions in place, and the extent of policy-makers’ expertise and their knowledge about other important actors involved in a given policy field.

The most effective way to describe state capacity in terms of policy implementation process would be through the lens of policy context defined as a set of formal and informal institutions that shape policy-makers’ perceptions, decisions, and actions. The definition of policy context largely depends on the focus and the level of analysis. In this respect, both the developmental stage and the extent of state capacity to instill or absorb changes may be viewed as a condition that affects policy implementation outcomes.

State Capacity and Democratization

The distribution of political and economic power within the society influences the operation and infrastructural capacities of any given state. The general capacity (efficiency) of the state largely depends on the number of institutional veto points entrenched in a system of relevant political and administrative arrangements.

In authoritarian and highly centralized states, individual leaders appear to be nearly unconstrained in their capacity to exercise power and establish control over resources necessary to induce compliance and maintain order. The policy process, in this context, may be characterized by somewhat unpredictable outcomes. On the one hand, the unanimous decision-making implies greater efficiency in the way things get done due to the top-down accountability structure. On the other hand, individual policy actors, in such context, would not have perfect information about problems and alternatives nor perfect computational abilities to solve highly complex policy problems. Therefore, policies would end up falling short of expertise implied by policy deliberation process, isolating or marginalizing minorities and other non-core elements of the existing political regime. These policies would have a more extensive time horizon spanning a few generations of human life, or even longer, depending on the institutional capacities of relevant states.

On the opposite side, liberal democratic political regimes provide conditions for the increased number of players involved in policy formulation stage and a more equal playing field for participants of electoral competition. Such systems usually build their policies on a dialogue among various forces involved in agenda-setting stage; they provide channels for public accountability and control and, as such, provide conditions for the development of more sustainable policies. Such design does not necessarily lead to the enactment of perfect policies. Some laws, in fact, risk never passing the stage of policy formulation due to the pressure of interest groups aiming to undermine reform agendas. However, instrumental rationality, central to the Weberian perspective on modern state, is an important characteristic feature of modernity, in which bureaucracy uses its power instrumentally in order to implement policies. Bureaucracy, in Weber’s view, exercises control over society on the basis of scientific and technical knowledge and within the confines of legal procedures. State power, in this context, is used to establish systemic relationships between the state and society.

One of the most crucial factors influencing state capacity to implement changes is the dynamic interaction between the existing political regime and state’s administrative structure. Silberman (1993), for example, argues that the rationalization of administrative processes, i.e., the creation of the norms of bureaucratic system, was the consequence of political struggles, which “attempted to redefine the structures of power and the criteria for access to them by groups of leaders who sought to reduce the uncertainty over their status and power” (425). Heady (1996) supports this idea by saying that “what has become more and more obvious is the extreme importance of variation among political regimes as a major explanatory factor for variation among public bureaucracies” (472).

It is important to emphasize that political regime creates institutional and cultural underpinnings for the use of power, whereas state capacity affects the ability of the state to strategize and allocate necessary resources to the appropriate areas of policy-making process. Societies and states, characterized by the weak representation system, make it difficult for state subjects to contest decisions or influence the results of policy-making cycle. Societies that are prone to corruption are more likely to induce interest-based thinking and to follow the “who gains what” logic, which may turn out to be harmful during the stage of policy implementation process.

The timing of democratization process and its relationship with state capacity has been a recurring theme in the study of state-building efforts since the eruption of political crises in recent decades. One of the key issues observed, in this respect, concerns the sequence of reforms, such as the question of whether the process of democratization shall precede or build on the process of economic reform. It is noteworthy that, starting from the 1970s, there has been more than 100 countries transitioning from authoritarianism toward democracy. All of these countries varied according to the level of economic development, social and political capital, infrastructure, and other prerequisites of sociopolitical change. As such the level of state capacity seems to be insignificant for the initial stages of democratic transition (or even conductive for regime change), whereas the process of democratic consolidation requires institutional changes directed toward the improvement of state capacity to conduct and sustain reforms.


This entry has provided an overview of “state capacity” literature, the body of which has been growing during the second half of the twentieth century. The discussion began with the review of background concept and the analysis of research focusing on the ability of the state to achieve its goals. Such dimensions of state capacity operationalization as bureaucratic, legal, infrastructural, fiscal, and military capacity were identified.

The weaknesses of state capacity literature observed include the difficulties of measuring and operationalizing state capacity and the absence of criteria for comparing various aspects of state capacity across nations. One of the most distinctive features of all research dealing with state capacity is its exclusive focus on policy implementation stage, without any reference to the process of policy formulation or the level of policy-makers’ expertise. In this context, it is worth exploring not only the extent to which the government fulfills its role in the area of law enforcement or revenue accumulation, but rather the processes of agenda-setting and policy formulation, where significant battles around policy objectives occur and where mistakes of causation in policy-makers’ efforts to link policy objectives to policy outcomes happen.

The entry has also provided an overview of major themes and questions raised by political science scholars with regard to the process of implementing public policies. One of such themes concerns the nature of state power and various forms of it. The next theme concerns state’s relationship to other forces captured by the concept of state autonomy. Finally, the third issue concerns the role of the state in economic development and the effects of investment on state capacity development.

The current stage of research focusing on state capacity consists in the development of theoretical insights aiming to move the analytical focus of political science scholars beyond a limited number of cases. However, while the number of studies and variables observed is growing, the level of analysis chosen by “statist” theorists nearly always tailors their research agenda toward the confines of general frameworks rather methodological guidelines on how to measure and evaluate state power in a comparative perspective.

The discussion emphasizes the usefulness of policy implementation research developed within the field of public management and administration literature during the same years as the eruption of studies on state power. This literature fills the gap in academic discussion on problematic policy areas (policy areas involving benefits for all) and the conditions and prerequisites of policy change and implementation processes. Considering this, it would be useful to view state capacity as a context in which the process of policy-making occurs. Both the developmental stage and the extent of state capacity to instill or absorb changes may be viewed as a condition that affects the outcomes of policy implementation stage.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Institutional StudiesHigher School of Economics, University of TorontoMoskvaRussia