Monday, 16 February 2015

The Theory of Change

How do we change the lives of people in Scotland, for the better?

The Theory of Change is a way of describing how change will happen. Viewed as a road map for change, it starts from where we are  now, aims at a better place in the future, and lays out the routes for getting there.

Where we are now is not good.

Whether you prefer the statistics and maps of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, or to walk the streets of Glasgow, you'll see poverty, and increasing poverty.

So how do we make change, for the better?

The model provided by the Theory of Change starts with a series of data and assumptions about how things are now. It then lays out different routes - "interventions" - that lead to a better place. So we start with the data in the Scottish Government's Policy Briefing that there were 880,000 people living in absolute poverty in Scotland in 2012/3, and then work out what we are going to do about it.

Charities in Scotland are each applying their own Theory of  Change. Last Thursday's report from the Poverty Alliance showed charities such as the Trussell Trust are intervening with food banks. Their rationale is that we can relieve the most desperate effects of poverty by providing food, and while you are doing that, providing nutrition advice, cookery classes and emotional support. Seventy percent of Scotland's 167 food banks are providing emotional support for their clients.

Meanwhile, Save the Children in Scotland has a different Theory of Change. Their "Eat, Sleep, Learn, Play!" programme, launched in 2012, provides essential household items such as beds, cookers and pushchairs, to families with young children living on a low income. The rationale of Save the Children is that by meeting families needs during the important early stages of development, families can improve the quality of their children's' lives and help them fulfil their potential.

Save the Children also campaigns. So does the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, whose principal rationale is to "work to get a better life for low-income families in Scotland through campaigning and lobbying."

Risk is implicit in a Theory of Change. If your rationale for ending or at least reducing poverty is to provide food banks and emotional support then your downside risk of failure is going to be linked to delivery; how many people can we reach from our food bank? Upside, you know that if you get a package of food into the hands of a poor family then you have fed them for the day, or the week. 

If you campaign and lobby then your risk of failure is high. You are trying to get the system to change - to get politicians to listen to your message and to translate it into policy. That is very hard to achieve. Despite years of campaigning and lobbying, poverty is still endemic in Scotland. The Scottish Poverty Briefing shows that one in six families in Scotland lives on less than 60% of the average wage. There is a substantial, in fact demonstrable, risk that campaigning does not work - it does not translate into Government action.

So why bother with the politicians?

Because while the risk of failure is high, the outcome if you succeed is enormous. If you could persuade a future Government to give up Trident and spend the money on the poor, or, better, increase taxation on those on higher incomes to provide greater shares for those on low or no income, then you would dramatically transform the lives of almost a million people in Scotland. This,in Theory of Change, is "system change."

Politicians are just the pawns in this Theory of Change chess-game. We need them to move across the board in the right direction (not just to protect the Kings, Queens and Knights of our society.) So when you vote in May, vote for system  change. Vote for the party that will change the system in Scotland, for the better.

1.James, Cathy. Theory of Change Review. London: Comic Relief, September 2011.
2 Image from
3 Scottish Government, St Andrew’s House. “Poverty Briefing.” Website Section, December 18, 2014.

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