How can we improve the way we move from analysing power to designing change strategies?

July 11, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

One of the most productive conversations in my recent trip to Bolivia was a discussion with Oxfam Bolivia staff on the shortcomings of my/our current thinking about how to move from analysing power to designing strategies to bring about change.

The current advice is to start with a power analysis, then move to mapping the relevant stakeholders, and on the basis of that, come up with some possible change strategies. Here are the guidelines I give my LSE students on how to do this, drawing heavily on Oxfam’s internal training materials (we will be publishing those soon, in case you’re interested).

What people told me in La Paz is that often, this doesn’t work very well. They struggle to join the dots. Power analysis is interesting, but struggles to connect to the rest of the exercise; stakeholder mapping becomes a ritual exercise in which you dump loads of acronyms and institutions onto the flipchart, but then largely default to the change strategy you would have come up with anyway.

We tried to nail down why this is happening, and how to fix it. Here are some of the ideas that came up:

1. More attention to defining the problem

2. Think about power, then think harder about power

3. Who is doing the analysis/mapping?

4. Monoliths v turtles

5. What works for public policy doesn’t necessarily apply to other areas of influencing

6. What do we mean by ‘interests’?

More attention to defining the problem

We often have broad ideas about the problem we are trying to influence (‘patriarchy’; ‘inequality’). If you jump straight from there into a discussion on power, stakeholders, tactics etc, you are unlikely to come up with anything very effective. Better to spend more time digging down into the problem, for example through the ‘5 whys’ approach, until you get to something which you really think is the root cause (you may be wrong of course!). Then you have a better chance of coming up with a decent strategy. But be aware, there’s a tension here with thinking in systems – a problem is always part of a broader system and isolating it entails some degree of misrepresentation/approximation. Also, most people will have blind spots – hence the value of involving diverse perspectives to inform the analysis.

Think about power, then think harder about power

Everyone says they think about power, but often people default to the world of ‘visible power’ institutions such as the different arms of the state, or private companies, or civil society organizations. Worse, they conflate power analysis with mapping these stakeholders. Spending more time on uncovering the importance of other kinds of power invisible (in our heads/hearts) and hidden (behind the scenes) power helps avoid this. But also, it may be worth doing two stages of power analysis – first one to identify the main actors involved in a given change process, but then another to understand what might influence them, on the basis of which we can shape our change strategy. Eg the first analysis identifies a particular official who can shape or take the relevant decisions, and then the second analysis identifies what could influence him or her.

Who is doing the analysis/mapping?

When the Bolivia team was coming up with a strategy on intimate partner violence among young people, staff drew up a standard stakeholder map that proved largely irrelevant to what they found once they started work. What would have been better?  Involve members of the system you are trying to influence from the outset, eg focus groups with youth people who are/aren’t experiencing violence.

Monoliths v turtles all the way down

A monolithic stakeholder map with entries such as ‘the private sector’ or ‘the government’ obscures the divisions between different sectors/companies/ministries/tiers of government that often play a crucial role in successful change strategies. By avoiding this, Oxfam has found allies in unsuspected places, eg European arms manufacturers in the campaign for an international Arms Trade Treaty. But how far do you go, short of reducing it to every single company employee or civil serpent? Is it enough to focus on the leaders at different levels? To paraphrase Einstein, as far down as necessary, but no further……

What works for public policy doesn’t necessarily apply to other areas of influencing

The advice on how to move from a stakeholder mapping to a change strategy is largely based on Oxfam’s extensive experience in achieving policy change through public campaigns and advocacy. So it considers areas such as how officials or politicians make decisions, what influences them etc, and how campaigners can target those processes.

In recent years we have become much more aware of the wider arena of power, and our power analysis has broadened to include areas such as social norms on issues like gender-based violence (see this post on the very useful Rao and Kelleher framework). But we have not worked out how to move from that kind of power analysis to a useful discussion of stakeholders and strategies. Eg if we are talking about GBV, then the stakeholders (and bystanders and perpetrators) are likely to be very different – parents, neighbours, faith leaders, and the tactics to influence them are also going to be different.

The dynamics of change are also likely to be different in different quadrants of Rao and Kelleher. Eg we have seen with norm changes in areas such as gay rights, or GBV, that there is often a process of Courageous initial outliers → spread of acceptance → tipping point → reform, but that is then followed by a backlash, leading either to reversal or eventual consolidation. That clearly has implications for how you design a strategy to work on the left hand side of Rao and Kelleher. Has anyone got anything useful on this?

What do we mean by ‘interests’?

Trying to identify the ‘interests’ of particular players is really complicated. Firstly, we tend to equate them with material interests, but that is too simplistic. Every actor has multiple interests: self image, or wanting to look good/avoid losing face in front of others, or be in line with symbolic history (eg Bolivia’s 1952 Revolution) can be just as important as ‘will this make me richer?’ We also need to understand why they are interested. Some interests are easily changed, eg through experience or exchange with people who have a particular experience/story, or by altering material incentives, but others are deep rooted ‘positions’, e.g. some norms, and probably aren’t worth the effort, at least in a short-term campaign.

Finally, potential allies may not support you for the reason you want them to, but have interests that can be tapped to get their support or at least neutrality (eg in Bolivia, evangelical church leaders softening their line on abortion because they wanted to appear more humane than the Catholics).

There was lots more along these lines. Oxfam Bolivia people still thought that mapping is a good way to organize subjective perceptions, make it visible and then test and improve it – we should refine the tools, rather than reject them. So now and I’m going to have to rewrite my guidelines for students, but before I do so, I thought I’d ask you lot to chip in.

And thanks to Jo Rowlands for great comments on an earlier draft, many of them incorporated

July 11, 2019
Duncan Green