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10 ways DFID can improve Theories of Change for Research Uptake

By 1 August 2012

For many DFID-funded RPCs (Research Programme Consortia*) the concept of Theories of Change (ToC) can appear to be the elephant in the room when conceptualising new (or even revising existing) research programmes. As Duncan Green has pointed out, ToC has become the new “fuzzword” that everyone’ s bandying about, but when you ask people what is a ToC or what theirs looks like, there tends to be an awkward silence.

This, I suggested at today’s ToC workshop hosted by DFID and Research for Development, stems from confusion created by:

  • An over reliance on, and confusion with, logframe modelling, which often does not follow a logical pathway (ironically)
  • The tendency to first align ToC with M&E and assigning indicators, without first plotting clear pathways to change
  • Lack of clear guidance and support in developing a ToC, specifically for research uptake and policy influence

DFID today acknowledged that the process which sees all new RPCs developing a ToC could be improved, and talked about moves underway to provide better guidance for DFID-funded programmes. This is good to hear, after all DFID have played an instrumental role in seeing ToC become the new “fuzzword” within the development sector and it’s important that this potentially valuable process is defined clearly, allowing the fuzz to be removed.

DFID is listening, so perhaps there is a real window of opportunity to ensure the ToC process is refined, not convoluted with the development of logframes, and guided by the development community. Based on the discussion yesterday and some of my thoughts over the last 12 months in thinking about ToC, I have suggested 10 things DFID and its future guidelines might want to consider to improve the process .

1. ToC needs to come before the logframe in the programme cycle. Currently DFID RPCs put together the logframe before they put together the ToC. This often results in an overly complex ToC because there is a natural tendency to use the same logic (or rather the illogic) as in the logframe. The result is that the focus on actors along the various pathways and the changes you want to bring about in them are often missed.

2. Make sure you have some evidence and contextual understanding of how change might happen before you begin your ToC. This ensures that those assumptions within the ToC can be better ‘unpacked’ and understood, and would ensure that when you actually produce your ToC it provides not just a hypothetical overview of change, but one which is strategically relevant (Duncan Green talked about the need to separate out the hypothetical from the strategic and this process would support this).

3. Provide better on-going training and support

4. DFID need to ask for annual revisions of ToC so that it is seen as an ‘emergent’ process, and more reflective of changing contexts, rather than being something that is written at the outset and seldom returned to.

5. Make sure RPCs focus more on the “and a miracle occurs” moment (familiar to most people through this cartoon) or in other words the interactions and activities that are required to see outputs and outcomes materialise and the assumptions underlying these. Simon Batchelor (IDS) spoke of making sure every step is “stress” tested as a means of reviewing causality, which is another useful way of thinking about this.

6. Ensure the initial focus is on building clear pathways of change, and ensure the M&E element  follows as something leading on from this

7. Make sure the research process is included in the change pathways (a great deal of assumptions exist in relation to the direction and outputs associated with the research itself,  and often these never actually emerge).

8. Engage researchers from the start by making sure ToC is not something done for researchers but something that includes them (along with every other member of the team)

9. Promote changes to the incentive structure for research uptake so that researchers can think more in terms of ‘impact’. This is a biggy! The incentive structure seems so engrained across academia, and to talk about changes solely in the context of development research appears untenable. Thankfully, Duncan Green encouraged us to think again, and suggested a number of incentives DFID could direct at DFID-funded research programmes. Here are two of a few ideas that emerged:

  • Make ToC adaptable so that RPCs can take advantage of shocks and events happening in the real world to get their research into policy and practice. What’s more they should get credit for doing this.
  • Have a league table for researchers leading on advocacy and engagement through various different communications tools (i.e. social media, blogging, podcasts, radio etc.)

10. Don’t be too prescriptive about what a ToC should look like. Each ToC could include a variety of different pathways (or theories), as such diagrams and narratives will often be very different. As long as these are “stress” tested and the indicators assigned to these justified, then this should be seen as appropriate. Creative thinking is what we need!

It would be great to hear people’s thoughts and experiences on developing a ToC for DFID-funded programmes, along with any ideas on how this process could be improved.

Duncan Green (Oxfam) also blogged about the workshop here: Can theories of change help researchers (or their funders) have more impact?

*DFID-funded research programmes