How change happens and what can think tanks do about it?

21 June 2017

We have quoted Pathways for Change: 10 theories to inform advocacy and policy change efforts, before. Sarah Stachowiak’s 2013 paper offers a very clear and practical review of 10 theories of change (not to be confused with the tool “theory of change”) to help understand how change happens and inform the development of strategies to affect it. It is an update from a 2008 paper with 6 theories.

In this article I want to offer practical advice for policy research institutes or think tanks. This article covers the first 5 theories: global theories, which seek to explain how change happens more broadly.

What is a theory of change?

Not to be confused with the tool, a theory of change refers to:

the set of beliefs and assumptions about how change will happen.

We take these to be theories applied to a society or a sector. These theories can be used to inform a Theory of Change exercise (although they hardly ever are). The 10 theories presented in Stachowiak’s paper are:

Global theories include the following:

  1. “Large Leaps” or Punctuated Equilibrium theory
  2. “Policy Windows” or Agenda-Setting theory+
  3. “Coalition” theory or Advocacy Coalition Framework
  4. “Power Politics” or Power Elites theory
  5. “Regime” theory

Tactical theories include the following:

  1. “Messaging and Frameworks” theory
  2. “Media Influence” or Agenda-Setting theory
  3. “Grassroots” or Community Organizing theory
  4. “Group Formation” or Self-Categorization theory
  5. “Diffusion” theory or Diffusion of Innovations

Global theories

This article focuses on the global theories.

Large Leaps or Punctuated Equilibrium theory

Developed by Baumgartner and Jones+ this theory states that significant changes in policy and institutions occur when the right conditions are in place: “like seismic evolutionary shifts”.

These large shifts can happen when:

  • An issue is faced with a fundamental questioning or re-definition;
  • New actors, of significant importance, become involved in an issue; or
  • An issue receives a sudden burst of attention from the public the media or key actors.

What can think tanks do?

When seismic changes are necessary, piecemeal reforms may not be appropriate. Efforts to provide practical recommendations and work with the grain may not be relevant. Instead, think tanks may:

  • Seek out and establish partnerships with like-minded civil society organisations with greater capacity to reach a broader audience and work with the activist media and grassroots movements.
  • Focus their research efforts to break the consensus -explore an issue from an alternative perspective, using tools from a different discipline, or questioning the prevailing assumptions;
  • Encourage and/or empower new actors to join the discussion -for instance, by framingtheir research from the point of view of the private sector or grassroots actors hitherto uninvolved, or directly targeting their communications to new audiences; and
  • Develop alternative convincing (and complete)+ explanations, narratives and solutions that may draw significant attention from popular actors such as the media, opinion makers, public and private leaders, etc. and help re-set the agenda.

Policy Window

John Kingdom is famous for this theory. He argues that change happens when two of the following three stream come together (ideally all three):

  1. Problems
  2. Policies or solutions
  3. Politics or political opportunity

The policy window approach has been well documented for the case of think tanks. It can sometimes be described as a waiting game: strategic opportunism, is how John Young at ODI calls it.

What can think tanks do?

Think tanks can act on it by:

  • Identifying, tracking and throughly understanding establish policy windows in their contexts -for example, budget announcements, global summits, party conferences, etc. Not all windows will offer the same influencing opportunities, nor should they be expected to deliver the same possible results;
  • Establishing a credible, recognisable and accessible brand as an institution and on the issues pertinent to the windows – for instance by developing and maintaining a highly visible research agenda on the issue, repeatedly targeting the same policy window year on year, or developing or joining appropriate global and national coalitions;
  • Focus their research efforts, at least in the beginning, to accurately define the problems faced and draw attention and support to them;
  • Developing sound and practical (the window won’t open for long) recommendations and advice to address these problems; and
  • Develop the organisational and communications capacity to respond with speed and accuracy -particularly in the case of un-scheduled policy windows.

Coalition theory or Advocacy Coalition Framework

The theory was developed by Paul Sabatier and Hank Jenkins-Smith.+ It argues that change happens through the coordinate activity of a range of individuals (or organisations) with the same beliefs and objectives.

The theory proposes that even diverse groups of people and organisations can come together when they share core beliefs and objectives which allows them to overcome bureaucratic barriers and entrenched power. The case of Chilean think tanks, parties, civil society leaders and the general public opposing the Pinochet government comes to mind as a case study.

What can think tanks do?

If we draw from the Chilean case and cases referring to the theory then policy research institutes may:

  • Focus their efforts towards developing the necessary organisational and personal competences and skills to work in coalitions and partnership (this is not something think tanks are always good at);
  • Pay greater attention to co-developing knowledge rather than attempting to attribute findings to their own work;
  • Use their convening power and capacities (for instance through public events) to bring together diverse groups of actors to encourage the emergence of a consensus in core beliefs and objectives;
  • Generate and share data and evidence with other think tanks, research centres, civil society organisations, etc. to help reach new evidence informed consensus; and
  • Champion or support individuals and organisations with the power to mobilise others or gain positions of power -for instance developing the capacity of or informing political parties.

Power Politics theory of Political/Power Elites theory

As the name(s) suggest, this theory suggests that the power to bring about change is held by a few.+

This theory assumes that there are individuals (or small groups of individuals) with enough power to make decisions that can bring about change across the board. It calls for a study of power (direct, indirect and implicit; global, national or subnational) and the roles of different members of the elite.

This theory supposes that think tanks belong to the elite -even if they may serve more powerful masters. In many developing countries it is the prevailing theory informing think tanks’ strategies (even if they do not accept it).

What can think tanks do?

Think tanks will find much of these recommendations familiar:

  • Target a few key policymakers or influential individuals through direct engagement and using personal and professional networks;
  • Find opportunities to join the decision-making bodies in government through the “revolving door”, secondments, advisory roles, or consultancies;
  • Partner with or cozy up to influential individuals or institutions (e.g. foreign funders where governments are dependent of Aid or interest groups or lobbies where the private sector has a influential role); and
  • Focus on incremental change rather than seismic change -elites (which may be dominated by the market, the state or civil society at large) won’t like to lose their place in society.

Regime theory

This theory argues that to bring about change, governments (or those attempting to bring about change) must work with several regimes (or collective groups: public and private interests).+ The notion of a regime suggests a fairly stable and strong body. Regimes bring together resources, strategic knowledge, capacity to act on it and networks and supporters.  Attempting to change (dismantle, reform) a regime can be expensive for policy entrepreneurs, even within government.

In a nutshell it argues that it is not enough to have power over others but it is rather necessary to have power to encourage others to bring about change. Think of a new reformist minister with an entrenched bureaucracy adamant to resist any change.

What can think tanks do?

From the point of view of a policy research institute a regime can seem an insurmountable challenge. But think tanks ought to remember that they too belong to a regime (or more). So they may:

  • Focus their attention towards understanding the regimes that government the policy issues they are interested in -that is pre-empting all research efforts with studies to address the political economy of change: who, why, how would education policy reform be opposed within the Ministry of Education?
  • Work with an existing regime (maybe aligned to their values) and strengthen it with research based evidence and advice -this may involve propping up the ruling regimes or supporting alternative ones to help balance the playing field; and
  • Outright seek to undermine a regime’s power to govern or rule by targeting their evidence based (for instance through fact checking or attempting to review or replicate the research that underpins their arguments), promoting and popularising narratives that challenge their power (for instance, identifying certain groups as barriers to the kind of reforms that the general public demands) and targeting legislation and policies that underwrite these regimes power (for example, civil service reforms, freedom of information legislation, etc.).

 How can this help?

The first step to developing a strategy is to understand the context in which we operate. Think tanks and policy entrepreneurs with only a faint understanding of their context will inevitably fail to reach their objectives -or they might attribute themselves changes that happened despite of their efforts rather than because.

A sound understanding of their content will help think tanks to develop sound strategies: from choosing the right questions to ask and methods to answer them to the most appropriate and effective strategies to communicate their arguments and recommendations.

Think tanks may not be able to play the same functions in every context. They will have to adapt their strategies in response to how change happened in each situation. This will inevitably demand a discussion about the right mix of skills that the think tank’s workforce has; how its current partnerships and networks enhance their competencies or compensate for their shortfalls; or whether their business models are at all sustainable and resilient to shocks.