I have been thinking a lot about ‘theories of change’ this week (as I was here). Actually, I have been thinking more about ‘conceptual models,’ which was the term by which I was first introduced to the general idea* and the term I still prefer because it implies more uncertainty and greater scope for tinkering than does ‘theory.’ (I accept that ‘theory of change’ has been branded and that I have to live with it, but I don’t have to like it.)
Regardless of the term, the approach of thinking seriously about how behavioral, social and economic change happens is important but often overlooked during the planning stages of projects/programs/policies and linked evaluations. Moreover, they are glossed over in the analysis and reporting stages, left to academic speculation in the discussion section of an evaluation paper and not informed by talking systematically to those people who were intended to benefit from the program.
I think there is growing recognition that building a theory of change is something that should happen, at least in part, backwards (among other places where this is discussed is in ‘evidence-based policy’ with the idea of a ‘pre-mortem‘ and ‘thinking step-by-step and thinking backwards‘). That is, you start with the end goal, usually some variant of ‘peace,’ ‘satisfaction,’ ‘wellbeing,’ ‘capabilities,’** etc., in mind and work backwards as to how you are going to get there from here.
Actually, it’s a bit more like the transcontinental railroad in which you start from both ends— where you are and where you want to go— and build backwards and forwards until the ideas meet in the middle. This should provide a sense of what needs to be done, what assumptions underlie each step, and how the steps relate to one another.
In explaining not only conceptual models but grant writing, the analogy of an island is useful (and is borrowed from Vic Strecher). The island represents where you want to go– the state of the world as things will be once an intervention is rolled-out and fully operational, lasting change is affected. It isn’t really enough to just say that people will have more money or will be healthier. One should describe how the state of the world would look, feel, and operate. How would someone’s day look in the new state of the world? What would be different about the way they undertake their daily activities, or, indeed, what their daily activities would be?
Then, with the new state of the world/island in mind, you can make sense of where you are currently (through an ex ante ‘needs assessment‘— something I so rarely hear about in planning development projects or building theories of change) and what needs to be done to build a bridge from where you are to the island.
Some of this work in understanding where people are and where ‘they,’ and, therefore, ‘we’ want to go is meant to be generated through the nebulous terms “stakeholder engagement” and “formative work.” I think we discuss much less how formative engagement and stakeholder work (probably not a great sign of specificity that all the words can be mixed up so easily) actually translates into a robust theory of change. In this regard, I have learnt quite a bit from product and engineering books like the Inmates are Running the Asylum. These books discuss product and service design and the ‘user experience’ — far-out concepts we don’t spend enough time thinking about in ‘development.’ But it would benefit our theories of change, attempts at ‘best-fitting’ a particular situation, and, you know, the intended beneficiaries.
One of the tools I like best are ‘personas’ -- developed by Cooper, a design and strategy firm and discussed in the aforementioned book. Personas are imaginary prospective users of an in-design product. Here’s the idea, as I see it translating to development and theories of change. We know stakeholders are important, but they cannot (realistically or effectively) all be in the same room, at the same table, at the same time, nor can they all be called up each time the program design or the underlying assumptions are tweaked. Indeed, it is intended beneficiaries that are hardest to call up and most likely not to be at the table. Using personas, though, they can be brought to the table so that what happens in ‘the field’ most certainly does not stay there.
Let’s say that, for a given project and evaluation, widowed women are a key sub-group of interest.
Forget widowed women.
Start thinking about “Mary.”
Mary is a widowed woman.
Her husband had been a carpenter and died of c cause. She lives in x place while her n children live in z other places and provide her with s amount of support. Mary can be a composite of widowed women you did meet in the field during deep, household-level needs assessments and formative in-depth interviews with intended beneficiaries. That’s how you might have a picture of Mary and know that she lives in h type of house, with e regular access to electricity and have g goats and l other livestock. It’s how you know she’s illiterate and has a mobile phone onto which she never adds credit. It’s how you know what time she wakes up, what her morning chores are, who she talks to, when and whether she has time to go to the market, how she gets her information, what aspects of her environment will enable change and which will hinder it, and so on.
So, all potential beneficiaries can’t be at the table, but personas of key subgroups and heterogeneities of interest can be. If everyone in the room for the design (intervention and evaluation) process is introduced to the personas, then they can speak up for Mary. She still gets a voice and the ability to ask, ‘What’s in all this for me?’
Personas also enable development professionals to answer key questions relating to program design such as: Will she be able to deal with an extra goat if she gets one as part of a livestock program? Does she have the means of transport to collect cash as part of a transfer program? Is her neighborhood safe for walking so she can follow up on the health information you provide? Is Mary going to give a hoot about the sanitation information you provide her?
Mary’s obstacles need to be dealt with in program design, and the places where Mary might have trouble engaging with the program need to be included in the theory of change and monitored as part of the M&E (& e) plan. Will Mary help you think everything? No, of course not — she’s good but she’s not that good. However, with her help, the program’s design will probably be nearer to something that can actually work (and don’t forget that street-level workers, other implementers, and high-level stakeholders should have personas, too!).
Please invite Mary to the table when designing an intervention and constructing a theory of change. Personas do not replace the need for actual monitoring and asking for beneficiary, implementer and stakeholder feedback, but they may help development workers better consider their needs.
Allowing Mary to describe how her life is different (better!) with a program in place and how the actual structure of her day and decision-making have changed now that she’s on the aforementioned goal island will take us a little closer to making it so.
* Via Vic Strecher in conceptual models 101. I discussed the ideas in this class the most with Danielle Giuseffi, and this post never could have happened without those conversations and some of her additional recommended readings.
**Yes, I know that ‘capabilities’ were initially from Amartya Sen and that I should have linked to this, but for planning approaches, I find the 10 laid out by Nussbaum more accessible.
Photograph by Curt Carnemark via Flickr
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