We at OCP believe that a strong ‘theory of change’ is essential for supporting procurement reforms that last and achieve impact. We’re not alone in believing in the power of this tool, and many organizations have developed resources to help others create their own theory of change. But for many of our government partners, this can be the first time that they’ve heard of the term. Even for our nonprofit or civil society partners who are familiar with it, creating a theory of change can be viewed more as a box-ticking exercise to satisfy funders than a useful tool to help with the nitty-gritty of project implementation.
Done well, a good theory of change is a living document that guides your work. In this blog post, we will demystify this tool from the perspective of procurement reform. We’ll also share resources and tips to help you create your own theory of change, and get the most out of it. Let’s dive in.
Why create a theory of change
A theory of change is your plan for achieving your goal. It describes the logic for how your activities will lead up to the change you want to see. By documenting your plan in this format, you can test the logic of your plan, spot gaps, and identify important milestones that you will need to achieve in order to be able to show results.
Creating a theory of change for procurement reform projects is helpful because it helps you see all the pieces you need in place to achieve your goals and focus on activities that will deliver this change. Big reform projects often require teams to work across data, policy, and politics. A theory of change brings this all together in one place. It can help you keep an eye on the big picture with everything you do. Otherwise, it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day activities and forget to ask yourself if these activities will actually lead to the change and impact you want to see.
How to create a theory of change
Theories of change can all look a little different, but usually share some core components. Typically, it includes your impact goal; outcomes, which are the big changes you need to make happen to achieve impact; outcomes, or the pieces you require in place to result in the outcomes; and activities, which you need to create your outputs.
Get started by using our framework and following these steps. By working backwards from impact to activities, you will know that your activities will result in impact.
- Start with your impact goal. What is the big change you want to see? We recommend getting as specific and measurable as possible. Examples of strong impact goals include: reducing the cost of HIV medicines, increasing the number of SMEs participating and winning government contracts, or getting more public bicycles into more neighborhoods.
- Identify your outcomes. What smaller goals do you need to achieve in order to have impact? For example, if your big impact goal is increasing the number of SMEs participating and winning government contracts, your outcomes might include open and timely access to procurement data, increased SME capacity to submit competitive bids, and a reduction in late payments to vendors — thereby eliminating one of the most frequently mentioned barrier for SMEs to participate.
- Define your outputs. What milestones do you need in place to lead to your outcomes? For example, to reduce late payment to vendors, you may need to research or a process mapping to better understand why late payments are occurring, new or revised policies or guidance, and streamlined processes.
- Identify your activities. How can you achieve your outputs? For example, for research on late payments, you may need to identify key internal stakeholders in the process, hold interviews, and draft a report with findings.
Tips for creating — and using! — your theory of change
Creating a good theory of change does take time and effort. Here are some ideas to help you get the most out of the process:
- Co-create your theory of change with your team. Working together with your team takes time, but is a great way to build alignment around your goals and how you will achieve it.
- Revisit your theory of change during your project implementation. Your plans will change as you confront challenges and adapt to changing circumstances. Revisiting your theory of change during project implementation allows you to make smart changes and refocus your energy on activities that will result in impact.
- Communicate your theory of change. Sharing internally why you are doing what you are doing is a great way to build buy-in and explain priorities.
Are you looking for more ideas to get started with your open contracting reform? Check out our Open Contracting Quickstart Guide.