Whether in the back of a 4×4 in Tanzania , or in seminar rooms in Oxfam house, I seem to spend an increasing amount of my time discussing theories of change. Oxfamers seem both intrigued and puzzled – what are they? What are they for? The answers aren’t simple and, as social scientists like to say, they are contested. But here’s what I currently think.
What is a theory of change? A way of working and thinking, and a set of questions. Aerobics for the imagination – not a form to fill in (and most definitely not logframes on steroids ). Nor is it a typology or (a personal bête noire) an insanely complicated diagram that no-one coming after you can understand (see example, right). More here .
How does (or should) a good theory of change improve our work (or ‘add value’ as the marketing wannabes insist on saying)?
- It encourages deep observation of the system – how power is distributed; how decisions are made; what are the coalitions for and against any given change; how is change likely to happen in this system. The longer you can refrain from the jump to ‘so what do we do’, the more likely you are to come up with some good ideas to test.
- It makes you think far more about critical junctures /windows of opportunity as an essential component of any change process. These are almost uniformly absent from our pre-intervention plans, and yet when you watch a change process taking place, they often play a primary role. They are often then airbrushed out again in the subsequent rewriting of history.
- It highlights the importance of working with ‘non-usual suspects’ , brokering discussions between groups who may initially have low levels of trust, (even hostility), but who can come together and find new answers to old problems. In Oxfam, faith groups and traditional leaders often get overlooked, but there are many others (discussing potential places of discussion on social issues in rural Tanzania we came up with kiosk owners, soccer fans, women attending hairdressing salons and loads more).
- It helps you identify and open up the ‘black boxes’ in our thinking – intellectual leaps and assumptions, like the recent discussion with Twaweza  on their initial assumption that access to information would be enough to trigger citizen action.
- It shifts the emphasis away from a huge exercise in pre-intervention planning, followed by a long and unremitting process of implementation (with a mid and end term evaluation thrown in). Instead we are into something more experimental and iterative – come up with some initial hypotheses to test, but the smart thinking will be around taking stock and correcting courses as the project evolves. This is true because our understanding of a context improves as the project evolves, requiring adaptation (Oxfam programmes such as Raising Her Voice have really benefited from a theory of change discussion a couple of years into their work), but also because high levels of staff turnover  mean that in any case, we need to constantly re-learn the theory of change behind a programme.
- Linked to this, a good theory of change should shift the centre of intellectual engagement from monitoring to learning (see Claire Hutchings’ recent post ).
All of these points apply both to programmes that are already under way, as well as to ‘clean sheet’ discussions on new work.