In this introductory article, we call for a new anthropology of bureaucracy focused on 'the public good'. We aim to recapture this concept from its classic setting within the discipline of economics. We argue that such a move is particularly important now because new public goods – of transparency, fiscal discipline and decentralization – are being pressed into the service of states and transnational organizations: it has therefore become critical to focus on their techniques, effects and affects through fine-grained ethnography that challenges the economization of the political. We demonstrate our approach through some ethnographic findings from different parts of India. These show how fiscal austerity leads to new limited social contracts and precarious intimacies with the post-liberalization Indian state. This relationship between new public goods and forms of precarious citizenship is then further illuminated by the six articles that follow in this special issue.