The Hidden Life of Theories of Change

September 17, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

We’re getting down and aid-wonky for the next couple of days. First up, ToCs:

I’ve gone through a personal hype cycle on Theories of Change – first getting excited and extolling their virtues, and then starting to have second thoughts as I saw them turn from a tool that encourages imagination and experimentation into a bit of a tickbox ‘logframe on steroids’.

A new paper does a great job in exploring how ToCs have been introduced and then evolved (not always in a good way). It delved deep into the role Theory of Change played in the Citizen Agency Consortium, a five-year strategic programme funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and implemented by Hivos, IIED, and Article 19. The Hidden Life of Theories of Change, by Wenny Ho, Margit van Wessel and Peter Tamas, is a must read for anyone interested in ToCs. Some extracts to whet your appetites (my summary subheads in square brackets):

[Real agility happens outside the Theory of Change]

While the relevance of chance is obvious, an advocate’s ability to read chance as windows of opportunities and turn them into stepping stones towards desired change is fundamental to success. Chance encounters blend with the personality of the advocate and other personal factors, including his or her relations and network, knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for a person or a topic.

In this process of sense-making and deciding, advocates’ reasoning is validated and strengthened by fast cycles of learning. These are cranked up through quick fact checking, corroborating, or bouncing off ideas with trusted allies or team members, and gathering of information or ‘intel’. This points to cycles of interactive learning and change within advocates’ carefully nurtured social networks that function as sounding boards for learning and theorizing. As a result, advocacy practice appears to be driven by locally negotiated, constantly changing communities of practice.

The Hidden Life of Theories of Change

Formal Theory of Change does not anticipate or reflect these kinds of dynamics and opportunities. Rather than use the Theory of Change to guide day-to-day decisions about which way they should go, advocates explained that they would reference their Theory of Change to test if there were strong reasons why they should NOT act on an opportunity. As an advocate explained:

“You see all kinds of opportunities every day and you have to choose which to pick and that is always difficult, because you see something and you want to jump on it and go for it. Then the Theory of Change helps you to align and to decide, okay, this fits in or not.”

Theory of Change thus serves more as the advocate’s compass and large-scale map as they navigate their way through shoals and reefs than as a guide for making day-to-day choices.

[Keep it Simple: rules of thumb more than a comprehensive strategy]

There was agreement among interviewees that a good Theory of Change should be simple. This appears to run counter to Theory of Change literature that hails it as a tool to develop well-thought-through program theory showing all-knowing mastery, comprehensive understandings of assumptions, pathways of change, their mechanisms, and relevant contextual factors.  A Theory of Change that shows this level of detail is then assessed as a good Theory of Change.

Interviewees stressed the importance of having space not only to use one’s own (evolving) understanding of what can be achieved to fill in national-level Theories of Change, in particular pathways of change, but also to act agilely in an ever-dynamic context. In this view, the less detailed, especially a generic, program-level Theory of Change is, the less it imposes a hard-to-understand and alien framework on partners in a manner that may undermine ownership building and adaptation.’

Hype curve
The Hype Curve: Where are ToCs?

How can theory of change help  advocacy?

A Theory of Change for an advocacy program is not a map with boxes of to-be-achieved outcomes. A snapshot taken at any point during its implementation may look more like an Emmental cheese with ignored pathways, vibrant try-out pockets, and outcomes already achieved beyond the original ambitions. Although introduced to guide practice in precisely these sorts of circumstances, a Theory of Change approach cannot drive advocacy practice, and attempts to have it do so may be harmful.  However, interviewees point to three ways in which working with Theory of Change has supported their advocacy work.

FIRST, a Theory of Change serves as a process tool for negotiating bounded freedom, which respects and supports an advocate’s much-needed agility to act on perceived windows of opportunity, and at the same time provides a collective framework for action. This helps to strike an effective and negotiated balance between individual freedom and collectively agreed goals.

SECOND, a Theory of Change captures the collective ambitions of a program to which a group of advocates can periodically return to chart their hopefully convergent paths, challenge implicit assumptions, recalibrate, and jointly reflect and make sense.

THIRD, a Theory of Change can serve advocacy work by bridging formality and informality. That is, although a Theory of Change describes the formal goals that provide direction for advocates, it does not necessarily constrict the freedom and flexibility they require to be effective in an ever-changing context. Consequently, working with Theory of Change provides operational space for advocates to harness to the fullest their knowledge, skills, and networks to undertake actions that may need to remain under the radar. Theory of Change can thus function as a tool to translate between constantly changing communities of advocacy practice in a manner that is compatible with formal requirements and accountabilities. This is a crucial advantage compared to other approaches and tools, such as logframes, in which outputs and actions are set in a manner that restrict the space to maneuver in an ever-changing context.

[And an uncomfortable conclusion that echoes my misgivings]

Theory of Change seems to be replacing logframes as the non-negotiable starting point in accessing and then accounting for funds. Like logframes, Theory of Change is presently commonly used to legitimize funding. Applicants are fundable when their Theory of Change tells donors a story that they assess as convincing. These stories must, with a ritual nod to uncertainty, predict future circumstances, causal relations in those futures, and the impact of their future actions within those futures. A Theory of Change can therefore be seen as a formal rite of passage only loosely coupled to the competencies required for successful practice, or –and this is the path that worries us– the content that finds its way into a Theory of Change may be misread as capturing all that really matters.

This managerial approach to doing development has been the subject of withering criticism for many years. The rise of Theory of Change was, at least partly, motivated by these critiques, as it is more sensitive to complexity. However, the potential of Theory of Change is subverted when it is used to improve certainty and taking control.

[Finally, a nice infographic-y set of recommendations]
September 17, 2020
Duncan Green