Learning about Theories of Change for the Monitoring and Evaluation of Research Uptake

This practice paper from IDS captures lessons from recent experiences on using ‘theories of change’ amongst organisations involved in the research–policy interface.

The literature in this area highlights much of the complexity inherent in the policymaking process, as well as the challenges around finding meaningful ways to measure research uptake. As a tool, ‘theories of change’ offers much, but the paper argues that the very complexity and dynamism of the research-to-policy process means that any theory of change will be inadequate in this context. Therefore, rather than overcomplicating a static depiction of change at the start (to be evaluated at the end), incentives need to be in place to regularly collect evidence around the theory, test it periodically, and then reflect and reconsider its relevance and assumptions.


"Over the years a great deal has been written about the research-policy interface, with much of it highlighting the inherent complexity of the processes by which research informs and influences policy (or otherwise). Many practitioners are familiar with the literature, but finding meaningful ways to measure results in this area often proves to be a challenge. This paper captures a collection of lessons from recent experience in facilitating and developing theories of change for programmes that seek to promote the use of research in policymaking processes.

The paper considers why it is often a challenge to measure results in this area, sets out the benefits of theory-based approaches, and then reviews recent lessons that emanate from attempts to develop theories of change for research uptake programmes. The paper concludes that theories of change are difficult to do well, and they provide no simple solution. For this type of programme, their true value seems to lie less in trying to capture the entire change process from the outset (for which they are often inadequate), and instead more in terms of providing an ‘organising framework’ against which to explore and better understand complexity during implementation." (p.1)


  • Introduction
  • Challenges in measuring the research-policy inferface
  • The rise of theory-based approaches
  • Lessons from practice
    • Lesson 1: Locate the theory of change within a broader understanding of policy
    • Lesson 2: Do not overly focus on higher-end processes
    • Lesson 3: Move beyond diagrams and simple intervention logics
    • ​Lesson 4: Accept imperfection, but revisit the theory of change often
  • Concluding remarks
  • References
  • Endnotes


Barnett, C. and Gregorowski, R. (2013) 'Learning about theories of change for the monitoring and evaluation of research uptake' in IDS Practice Paper in Brief 14, September 2013. 

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