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Street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) interact directly with users and play a key role in providing services. In the Global South, and specifically in India, the work practices of frontline public workers—technical staff, field engineers, desk officers, and social workers—reflect their understanding of urban water reforms. The introduction of technology-driven solutions and new public management instruments, such as benchmarking, e-governance, and evaluation procedures, has transformed the nature of frontline staff’s responsibilities but has not solved the structural constraints they face. In regard to implementing solutions to improve access in poor neighborhoods, SLBs continue to play a key role in the making of formal and informal provision. Their daily practices are ambivalent. They can be both predatory and benevolent, which explains the contingent impacts on service improvement and the difficulty in generalizing reform experiments. Nevertheless, the discretionary power of SLBs can be a source of flexibility and adaptation to complex social settings.

Article

Most urban residents in high-income countries obtain piped and treated water for drinking and domestic use from centralized utility-run water systems. In low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), however, utilities work alongside myriad other service providers that deliver water to hundreds of millions of city-dwellers. Hybrid modes of water delivery in urban areas in low- and middle-income countries are systems in which a variety of state and nonstate actors contribute to the delivery of water to households, schools, healthcare facilities, businesses, and government offices. Historically, the field has evolved to include within-utility networks and outside-the-utility provision mechanisms. Utilities service the urban core through network connections, while nonstate, smaller-scale providers supplement utility services both inside and outside the piped network. The main reform waves since the 1990s—privatization and corporatization—have done little to alter the hybrid nature of provision. Numerous case studies of nonutility water providers suggest that they are imperfect substitutes for utilities. They reach millions of households with no access to piped water, but the water they deliver tends to be of uncertain quality and is typically far more expensive than utility water. Newer work on utility-provided water and utility reforms has highlighted the political challenges of private sector participation in urban water; debates have also focused on the importance of contractual details such as tariff structures and investor incentives. New research has produced numerous studies on LMICs on the ways in which utilities extend their service areas and service types through explicit and implicit relationships with front-line water workers and with supplemental nonstate water suppliers. From the nonutility perspective, debates animated by questions of price and quality, the desirability or possibility of regulation, and the compatibility (or lack thereof) between reliance on small-scale water providers and the human right to safe water, are key areas of research. While understanding the hybrid nature of water delivery is essential for responsible policy formulation and for understanding inequalities in the urban sphere, there is no substitute for the convenience and affordability of universal utility provision, and no question that research on the conditions under which particular types of reforms can improve utility provision is sorely needed.