The theory of change method of planning has rapidly grown in significance for organisations working in social and economic development.

Wherever I work these days, someone is developing a theory of change and I often get involved in the process.

It’s good because the whole approach helps us all to think about the cause-effect relationships that underlie the design of a project. For example, if an investment if to be made in local decision-making processes for using infrastructure budgets, the underlying theory is that local people will make more effective decisions on the use of funds than outsiders, leading to better results for the community.

Simply stating this theory and discussing it enables us to work out where the weakness in the logic might be found. In this case, can we be sure that local people have the technical knowledge to make infrastructure investment decisions? If not, then the project design needs to be changed to make sure that expertise is available to them in a timely and appropriate way.

I used ‘logic’ above, which is not a word associated with theories of change because they tend to be seen as an alternative to logic models. And logic models continue to be criticised as being linear engineering approaches to tackling messy, complex social problems. But a peculiarity of some theories of change is that they often look like logic models.

We have a problem, which is that the pure form of theory of change is being messed with. As a result, multiple methods are emerging and which have the same name but which are quite different in character. Here are three different types of theory of change I have seen recently:

  • Flow diagrams that show how one activity links to another over time, with boxes joined by arrows and not much in terms of testable theories shown.
  • Vertical logical frameworks turned on their side, complete with the usual input-activity-output connections in the middle.
  • A list of statements on how an action will lead to a result.

All the above were called theories of change.

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s use both logic models and theories of change for project design and planning processes. A theory of change is a way of testing the key cause and effect relationships that underpin the project. We ought to identify those relationships and work out whether there is evidence to support them. This is a good starting point for a conversation with a project team or a community group. For example, I was in a planning workshop and someone said ‘we need to get the elders to talk to young people about their anti-social behaviour’. The theory of change was that senior people talking to young people would lead to less anti-social behaviour.

It only took for this statement to be written on the board for people to start raising questions like ‘How do we know that young people listen to elders?’ or ‘Do the elders even want to do this?’. Once the testing of basic ideas had progressed for a while, we were ready to write a logic model. In this case, one of the activities prior to writing the logic model was to talk to a group of elders to find out whether and how they might be involved.

So, once all the theories of change are worked through, we ought to have a basis for preparing a much better design for a project than would have been the case. After that, using a logic model will be more effective as it should avoid us jumping to simple linear ‘solutions’ for social problems that simply may not respond that way.