Impact Practitioners

Four lessons for improving Theory of Change use in research uptake M&E

By 28/03/2024

This 11-page paper brief published by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) presents lessons learned from using theories of change (ToCs) for research uptake evaluation. While ToCs can be incredibly helpful tools, it is also important to bear in mind that their effectiveness could be affected by the complexities of the research-to-policy process.

Firstly, we need to consider why it is often difficult to measure the research-policy interface, and to assess research uptake. According to the paper, there are several distinct challenges.

The first is determining the links between research and influencing activities, and subsequent policy. This is difficult because policy change is rarely ‘linear’ – it is shaped by a variety of interacting forces and actors. Policy change also tends to happen over longer timeframes, which conflicts with the pressure to demonstrate results in the shorter term.

In a similar way, it is also extremely difficult to establish causality – especially identifying a plausible counterfactual – and judging the specific contribution of one organisation to a change.

Finally, it can be challenging to interpret the accounts of different actors, because research uptake and policy influencing is a very political and contested process. 

These challenges bring us to some general lessons and insights to think about when using ToCs for research uptake evaluation:

  • Locate the ToC within a broader understanding of policy. A good starting point is to think about how your own and stakeholders’ views fit into the larger picture of how to influence social change. Avoid having a narrow view of the research-policy interface.
  • Do not focus too much on higher-end processes. When creating a ToC, you should break down the ‘middle linkages’ that connect research production to its ultimate impact. This process is more practical and measurable.
  • Move beyond diagrams and simple intervention logics. While they may provide nice visual tools, they can undervalue the complexity of the policy change process.
  • Embrace imperfection, but revisit the ToC often. Developing a ToC should be viewed as an ongoing process to engage stakeholders in understanding how interventions create change. Imperfection is okay; the value lies in continuously testing and refining it.

Overall, this paper brief provides a summary of ways to improve the development of ToCs for research uptake programmes.

This article is part of our initiative, R2A Impact Practitioners. To find out more, please click here.