by Nancy Latham  |  October 8, 2014

If you are in the social sector – as a public agency, a foundation, a nonprofit, or an evaluator – chances are that you hear or use the term “systems change” an average of three times a day (plus or minus two). Five or ten years ago the term was still exotic, but no longer. It is now a little like the term “culture;” we are all able to use “systems change” correctly in a sentence, but the speaker and the listener are likely to have different interpretations of what it means, and many of us would be hard-pressed to provide a precise definition were someone to ask “just what do you mean by that, exactly?”

When discussing systems change over cocktails, this commonsense understanding works just fine. But as we seek to actively participate in systems change initiatives, we need a conceptual framework that supports a clear, shared sense of just what it is we are all talking about when we say “system” or “systems change.” And for those of us who evaluate systems change initiatives, we need not only this clear, shared understanding – but also a practical entry point into the work. We have found that systems frameworks often tend to be either:

  • Esoteric and theoretically elegant – and as a result disconnected from the daily reality of the work people do in systems,
  • Very abstract and general, making it hard to operationalize what a particular system looks like, or
  • So focused on the system level that the links from system-level causes to individual-level outcomes are hard to discern. 

LFA has developed A Practical Guide to Assessing Systems Change to address these issues. It offers a framework and a set of tools to help evaluators operationalize systems change concepts, and set up an approach to evaluate systems change initiatives. 

Our framework...

Uses familiar ideas and concepts that we can operationalize indicators that...

Are intuitively meaningful, and have obvious connection to the work on the ground.

Shows us where to focus our attention, giving us a way to organize the messy reality of systems and systems change

Articulate concepts in a way that allows us to clearly "see" systems change as it unfolds.

Links changes at the system level to outcomes at the individual level

Tell a clear story of how systems change ultimately leads to better outcomes for people.

In Part One of the Guide, LFA presents a framework that is able to move away from the mostly abstract and theoretical toward the concrete, because it narrows the focus to just one class of system: the human service delivery system (e.g. education, youth development, health, workforce development). The framework is down-to-earth and practical, using terms and concepts common in the social sector. And its system-level concepts also get “close enough” to individuals so that we can see how system changes will impact daily lives.

Part Two of the Guide contains a series of tools that evaluators can use to plan and execute a systems change evaluation. For example, if you are looking for a shortcut to identifying systems change indicators, you can add this tool to your toolbox. Because of our focus on helping evaluators to tackle the messiness and complexity of systems, these tools are organized along the familiar lines of an evaluation that compares Time 2 outcomes to Time 1 outcomes. While the approach is designed to reduce messiness for the purposes of analysis, the approach does not forget the deep complexity of systems change. The Guide shows how to combine the straightforward change over time approach with a developmental evaluation approach that embraces complexity, emergence, and the need to stay open and flexible.

Ultimately, the Guide proposes that we can tackle complexity by staying grounded in straightforward and familiar concepts – while at the same time respecting the complex nature of systems change. For those of you who may have found the concepts of systems and systems change to be a little too abstract: after reading part one of this Guide, these concepts should feel less mysterious and easier to operationalize. And for those of you who have sometimes wondered where to gain the first foothold on a systems change evaluation: after surveying the tools available in part two, you should feel ready to design and carry out your own evaluation of a systems change initiative.

Nancy Latham, the Chief Learning Officer at Learning for Action, completed this Guide as part of her Senior Fellowship at the Center for Evaluation Innovation.