There have been notable shifts in the understanding of capacity development. This paper attempts to go beyond the question of how organisational capability develops, to ask what might be the path to sustained growth in capability. The focus on the role of the individual in the 1960s and 1970s shifted to the role of the organisation, exemplified in the wave of New Public Management reforms in the 1980s. When organisational behaviour did not change significantly as a result of these reforms, the focus changed again in the 1990s to consider the role of politics and the alignment of individuals, organisations and the institutional environment.
We find that sustained improvements in capability are most likely to happen where there is high drive for reform from both the political leadership and the bureaucracy, within an institutional environment that provides supporting incentives. While political and bureaucratic drivers can interact, political support is often needed for capabilities to develop and be sustained over time. The way capabilities develop is iterative in nature and often non-linear. Interventions tend to be more successful in areas where task specificity is high, and in cases where outputs are measurable and where there are low levels of staff turnover.