Evaluation5's Blog

May 10, 2011

Advocacy: theories of (policy) change

I like to work on the basis of a theory of change in monitoring and evaluation. If a program does not have such theory, I try with the people directly involved, to uncover what the conscious or unconscious thinking is behind action or the program, on what theory is it based. When they do have a theory, we validate it. A theory of change helps in deciding what indicators to monitor, what proxies are suitable or which may generate circle reasoning. Also, in evaluation a program theory can be key to identify key evaluation questions.

A brilliant read on the subject of theories of change was recently published by Patricia Rogers and Sue Funnell entitled “Purposeful Program Theory” (2011). The book also pays a good deal of attention to visualizing theories of change using a variety of charts and graphs. Rogers writes a lot about evaluation and complexity and I like what she writes. I am still digesting their book and will blog on it on some other occasion. This is a link Genuine Evaluation, Rogers’ blog.

To get a good picture of a specific theory of change you may need to abstract somewhat from the details: like looking to a painting through your eyelashes: see less, see more.  When information is filtered and you start to see the bigger picture. But it helps so to speak to have good eyelashes 😉  On Aid on the Edge of Chaos the blog from Ben Ramalingam, I found a very readable brief on theories about how policy change happens. The brief, written by Sarah Stachowiak of Organizational Research Services is very helpful to analyze and uncover the theory behind a broad variety of policy advocacy efforts. Stachowiak’s paper represents in a very concise way different approaches to a similar goal: policy change. She outlines 6 broad theories:

  1. the theory of the “Large Leaps” where mobilization of media and new, unexpected alliances create awareness and visibility that result in significant change
  2. the “coalition theory” that suggest change happens through sustained, coördinated activity of individuals that hold the same core, policy beliefs
  3. the “ policy window” theory of change suggests that change depends on several things coming together: problems, policies and politics. Only when problems are “political” issues and/or solutions are considered politically acceptable, a window for change may exist
  4. The “messaging and framework” theory emphasizes that information and how it is presented influences behaviors and decisions.
  5. Based on the “power elites” theory advocates would aim to influence a selected group of (individual) key decision makers an invest in their credibility among these
  6. Finally the “grassroots” theory challenges the power elites theory and claims groups can hold power, that power is based on coöperation and that it can be shifted through action and events

While all these theories may lead to similar results at the level of impact, they all go with different outcomes and results. For monitoring (and evaluation) this is essential. Interestingly some theories will fit an organizations capacity better than others: to stay close to (my Brussels’) home an organization like Friends of Europe has the network capacity to influence key decision makers, maybe take advantage of policy windows, but none to support grassroots communities. Concord, who represents organizations that have capacities to work with on the basis of the “grassroots” and “messaging and framework” theory promotes action based on a mix of the latter and the “coalition” theory.

I am not qualified to judge with theory holds true in a general sense and for my work in supporting monitoring and evaluation that is not needed. The brief provided me extra eyelashes, a very useful framework that help – to name a few possibilities – to :

  • trigger a process in which an organization develops a theory of change and frames what they and others actually do in a particular context, without having to start from scratch
  • the models help to assess whether an change strategy fits an organizations capacities (and the situation)
  • the framework may help facilitate strategy debates in networks of diverse organizations
  • using the framework it will be easier to identify or uncover a coherent set of intermediate results, outcomes and outcome indicators for a particular advocacy strategy

If you want to read the brief (it is a mere 14 pages, with very clear graphic representations of the theories) you can download it here.

By the way, some of these theories of change give pretty pictures………..



  1. Great summary. One question…Which theory is the fish supposed to be?

    Comment by CMatt — November 29, 2011 @ 6:26 am

    • CMatt

      Thanks, nice to know you appreciate the blog. The “blowfish” theory of change was developed by the New Mexico Voices of Children see this publication

      Comment by Rosien Herweijer — November 29, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

  2. I love the blowfish. Can I use it with my blog?

    Comment by nanzd — March 28, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

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