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Is it a theory of change or isn’t it?

Three years of creating change in Triple-S. Not a nice linear process but trying things out, getting better at it and finding words to describe what we do. And so it is time to step back and put it on paper. What is it this theory of change of Triple-S? Is it a theory or isn’t it?

Hello, my name is Ton Schouten and I am new on this blog. Actually, this is the first blog post of my life. I used to be the Triple-S project director before Patrick Moriarty. I am still working with Triple-S and currently writing the theory of change.

We did not have a theory of change when we started Triple-S. We knew the word but we had not made the nice diagrams leading from here to there. We definitely wanted things to change and we had ideas. Not all that clear and spelled out nicely, but a lot became clearer in the first year of Triple-S. The clarity did not come out of a planned, linear process; it was not done in a well-organisedworkshop of two days. It took hours of talking in corridors, meetings, waiting areas and trains to sharpen our ideas of how to make a difference. And it was gut feeling, years of sector experience and good intuition that fed our thinking. For a longtime it concentrated on how NOT to do Triple-S. Not as the standard project because it was that standard three year infrastructure driven project that was so harmful for sustainable water services. But weren’t research and knowledge projects such as Triple-S doing exactly the same? Flying in and out with a logframe filled up to cell LY-265, producing great leaflets with donor logos and a journal article …….. and leaving nothing that contributes to a better performance of that sector that will always be there. No, we should not do it like that!

While we were reflecting on the burden of the project modality and writing our anti-project concept note, our very loyal and understanding donor came to us saying: we really like your anti-project ideas but could you please start turning the anti-project in something that can be planned and managed for the next 6 years … and has impact at scale. It caused a bit of panic, but it was a turning point. Together with the BMGF we made the sketches of an outcomes based management approach which we then started to develop to the details of strategies, planning and learning cycles with the help of Samantha Rex of Ove Arup who had experience in managing change in the corporate sector.

It was hard work but great work; this was something I had never done before and it was great to align vision and concepts with processes of implementation and project management. Managing change towards the vision of sustainable water services!

One step made, but what to do exactly to get sector organisations moving towards that vision? How to engage, how to cooperate? How can we leave something beyond the glossy flyer and journal article? Again, there was no theory of change to guide us, gut feeling and experience made us do things and not do other things. Where did the gut feeling lead us to?

To the organisation of a one day meeting for charities, NGOs and foundations in the US together with USAID to gain credibility; to create momentum which was then picked up by the Global Water Challenge which organised a second meeting to which we only contributed and which resulted in the sustainability charter. To cooperation with two innovative NGOs which we use as the role model for other NGOs.To cooperate with the Rural Water Supply Network to adopt the service delivery approach and have outreach to their membership. Together with one of the IFIs look into the systems and procedures for loan approval and see what can be done to make the loan outputs more sustainable etc. And in the countries cooperate and give ownership to local organisations which can make a difference such as the CWSA in Ghana.

So we engage, build relationships with key people and cooperate with empathy and respect for what has been achieved; create intent and enthusiasm in organisations to tackle the sustainability challenge and take ownership for change – and leave responsibility where it should be (not this project). And stay close to these processes. We even invented a word for it: invocacy: working with and from within organisations. The Triple-S communications strategy explains this well.

That is where Triple-S is now. Almost every day things need to be adapted, improved or thrown to the dust bin; back to the drawing table. But that is OK. All that time we never wrote what we were doing. So people were asking: what are you people actually doing? Where are your journal articles, where is your evidence, where is your model? And that is one of the reasons to start writing the theory of change.

Actually now that the first draft is ready it is not so much a theory of change as it is a framework in which change can happen: a framework for creating intent, for making things happen in a specific context. It wasn’t fed by theory, whether soft systems or political economy. It was intuition, gut feeling and experience and it happened in a very messy process of setting up a big project, working with new partners and a new donor and in an organisation that was in a process of re-organisation. It is nice to look back and write it all up. When the theory or framework is there, we will let you know.

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One comment on “Is it a theory of change or isn’t it?

  1. […] and insights on the internal process involved in trying to create external change. Here’s Ton Schouten, previous project director of Triple-S: We did not have a theory of change when we started … but a lot became clearer in the first […]

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