The rise of the theory of change

Since at least 2009, when the research councils launched pathways to impact and HEFCE released proposals for impact assessment, impact, as part of research organisations’ agendas has grown both in importance and sophistication. How far institutions are equipped to support this development has last week been questioned in a timely blog on the LSE impact site, but activity in this area has grown exponentially in the last eight years or so.

Alongside the expectation that all researchers should consider the likely impact of their work, the government has been investing new research money in challenge-led research funds. The Global Challenges Research Fund and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund are part of the government’s plan to invest an extra £4.7bn in research and development by 2021. The challenge-led nature of these funds means that attention is naturally given to the impact of projects.

One tool for enhancing the effectiveness of research impact is a ‘theory of change’. This is a tool for planning and monitoring impact, which is increasingly referred to by research councils both directly and indirectly, as an approach that researchers should consider within their impact work.

In its guide to creating excellent pathways to impact, ESRC suggests using a theory of change as a tool to enable the impacts you are expecting.  More explicitly RCUK requires development of a theory of change as part of the final round of applications to its collective calls.

So, what is a theory of change and where did this come from?  Essentially it is a framework for thinking through a process of achieving change, and making the steps and assumptions within that, visible. Theory of change emerged from evaluation techniques used back in the 1950s which led to log frames or logical models of causal chains leading to outcomes. Criticism of the log frame model include the fact that it is not always clear what the intention was in a log frame. Secondly one of the challenges to evaluating research (and programme) activity is that the assumptions behind them are invisible. If is unclear how the change process will unfold, it is more difficult to see how far a longer-term goal has been reached.

So, to create a theory of change you need to work backwards from a clearly articulated change objective, building in a strategy and activities to achieve it, through intermediate and early stage changes (your pathway to impact). You also need to take into account the conditions that need to be in place to make this happen. At the end, you will usually end up with a diagram and narrative description.

However, theory of change is as much a process as product. The activities required to agree clearly defined objective, put in place appropriate steps to move towards it and acknowledge and agree assumptions about how these will lead to change are time consuming and challenging.

To carry this out you need to be able to answer some key questions:

Theory of Change is both a planning tool and a framework for monitoring and evaluation impact. In terms of planning, the theory of change approach is designed to encourage very clearly defined outcomes at every step. Details are required about the nature of the desired change — including specifics about the target population, community, organisations etc., then what success in terms of the change, would look like, and the timeframe over which change is expected to occur. This detail allows you, and your funder, to assess the feasibility of reaching explicitly stated goals.

Evaluation of research impact can have particular difficulties due to the separation of research and impact over time, distance, and, for international research, differences in, culture, language and so on. The orientation of challenge-led research towards explicit problems lends itself to a theory of change approach and allows indicators to be identified for each step in the change process, beyond outputs and activities.

Using a theory of change process is useful for researchers and research managers as it helps adjust a way of thinking from focusing on what you are doing, your own activities, to what you want to achieve, which researchers often find hard, it enables, and requires, you to put in place steps to achieve this, it gives you a framework to establish monitoring and evaluation as you see what each step is, so can measure progress against that.

However, it is a very challenging process; you or your partners need to understand how change happens in the context you are working in, theory of change development needs to be participatory (involving collaborators and stakeholders) and need to be flexible enough to evolve as your project develops and you test your assumptions.

The ‘theory’ of theory of change is not that complex, but putting it into practice, especially in interdisciplinary and international groups is very challenging. There is a lot written about theory of change to help you, and some of the most comprehensive documents are at http://www.researchtoaction.org/2015/09/theory-change-reading-list or try http://www.theoryofchange.org/

Vertigo Ventures is going to discuss theory of change, challenges and opportunities and what to bear in mind if you need to develop one or support development, in a webinar on 8-December at midday (GMT). Laura from Vertigo Ventures will introduce theory of change and we will then hear from Matthew Guest from GuildHE who has spent several years supporting theory of change development and can take your questions.