How does one of the “core” elements of the state, its payroll management system, function in actual practice? The empirical material presented during the seminar draws on archival data and data from the health sector, combined with several rounds of qualitative field research conducted between 2010 and 2018. First, we describe how actually three more or less official payroll systems are functioning in parallel. Second, we venture into the political economy context that gave rise to this state of affairs. Finally, we scrutinize how this leads to the paradoxical situation of overcrowded and underprovided public services. The seminar presentation is based on research carried out jointly by Stylianos Moshonas, Tom De Herdt, Paulin Balungwe Shamavu and Kristof Titeca.