This special issue explores a matter of critical policy relevance and political importance: the unuse or underuse of public funds, and more specifically of special purpose social funds. The contributions ask: why are there unspent social purpose funds, what do they tell us about the structures of the administrative state, and what can be done to remedy the situation? The eight chapters span across two different contexts : India and Italy. These radically different contexts also present valuable points of comparison. The analysed funds diverge in terms of their institutional design, type of benefits and eligibility of beneficiaries. At the same time, they sit within decentralised democratic frameworks and fragmented and multilevel governance. Juxtaposing the cases, the papers reveal key processes related to fiscal, administrative and policy practices that cause underspending. The papers provide an innovative vantage point to analyse institutional design and reforms in multilevel governance contexts; administrative and bureaucratic state practices; modalities of state-society engagement; and mechanisms to increase democratic accountability.