Monitoring and evaluation

What can we learn from the Think Tank Initiatives stories of influence series? – The approach (Part 1 of 2)

By 17 July 2014

The Think Tank Initiative (TTI) have recently published a series of 48 stories of influence to document the changes their work is supporting. On discovering this fantastic resource I wanted to know more!  TTI’s Shannon Sutton was responsible for pulling together these stories, and I recently caught up with her to discuss the approach used to develop these and the lessons learnt around the role of communication and engagement in supporting policy influence.

The TTI stories of influence were developed  as part of a year long collaborative process with 48 think tanks around the globe, and I’m grateful for Shannon’s reflections on the motivations, approach and learning that emerged from bringing these together.

Developing an approach

There is a growing trend for policy-focused research programmes and initiatives to document their policy influence through stories of change or influence. Policy influence is notoriously difficult to measure and understand, and this approach goes some way in capturing learning around such outcomes. TTI are hoping that these stories will demonstrate how their work is making a difference and to showcase the different ways the think tanks they are working with are having policy influence. An external review recommended that TTI should be doing more to share and learn more effectively from their work, and these stories are one of the first steps the organisation is taking along that road.

There are different types of stories of influence and change utilised by organisations and these often have slightly different objectives. At one end of this spectrum the focus of stories is purely evaluative, on the other there is more focus on marketing and profile raising. Somwhere in the middle lies a more balanced approach combiing both, which might also be inclusive of learning and peer-exchange objectives. It’s worth highlighting here the tendency to refer to different types of stories of change under the same heading, when in reality it would be massively helpful if we could find a way of making a distinction broadly along the above lines.

In the Handbook of Practical Program Evaluation(2010) Dan Krueger states that “An evaluation story is a brief narrative account of someone’s experience with a program, event, or activity that is collected using sound research methods,” He outlines five key factors that differentiate an evaluation story from other stories. The most significant is perhaps the need to ensure that all stories are validated through evidence and data.

I know from my own experience that writing a truly evaluative story of influence, using sound research methods, is no mean feat and very time consuming, especially when it comes to validating the data. TTI never intended to use their series to show the contribution and attribution of the think tanks work, nor to then validate this, but as outlined above TTI saw this as a useful approach to bring together and enhance global learning through a series of digestible stories, and to demonstrate to donors their impact – a valuable resource that perhaps sits somewhere centally on the spectrum outlined above*.

Sharing and learning at scale  

I did have some concerns about the sheer volume of stories published by TTI and how people would be able to sift through and find those relevant to them. There are 48 stories currently available and this number will be added to year on year, with all TTI-funded think tanks being asked to submit stories of influence on an annual basis.

Shannon assured me that TTI is making efforts to ensure that these stories will not be hidden on the TTI website and continuous efforts will be made to bring these to life. Since we spoke, all these stories are now available direct from the homepage of the TTI website, while there are also moves afoot to ensure that these stories can be easily searched via keywords and themes. It can be difficult to bring stories to life, but TTI seems determined, either through documentary videos, social media and taking advantage of opportunities that arise to talk about individual stories with different stakeholders.

Bringing together global learning from multiple stories and contexts

I’m glad TTI is taking this approach and do hope they continue to build on this resource and communicate it effectively. The current demand for stories of influence predominantly comes from donors who are looking to show more clearly the impact of their programmes – undoubtedly linked to the growing financial pressure and public scrutiny over development spending. This approach is very valuable, but I think across the development community we could be doing more to ensure that these stories are also used more systematically as a learning device, to reflect and build a better understanding of what worked in what context.

It’s also clear that there are different interpretations of what a story of change or influence is and what level of evaluative rigour they should aspire to. It would be incredibly valuable if as a community we could develop a clearer typology in order to understand the different types of stories of change that are  in use, at which point we can start to think more pro-actively about bringing together and comparing related stories within and between organisations. These stories are after all a wonderful narrative source of information and learning. Lastly, (and this has been said before many times), donors need to capture stories of non-influence and to ensure we understand how, when and why things don’t work – a message I’m not sure is getting through.

Part two of this post draws out some the lessons and trends emerging from the series in relation to the role of policy engagement and communications in supporting policy influence and impact. In the meantime why not take a look through TTI’s stories of influence and see whether there are any important ideas and themes relevant to your own work.

*You can learn more about the approach taken by TTI to develop these case studies here: Read more about the SOI methodology

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Useful resources on developing stories of influence and change:

1. Most Significant Change technique

2. Better Evaluation – Stories

3. Stories as an Evaluation Tool [Blog post]

4. Dr. Richard Krueger on Story Telling

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This post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec