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Bridging frameworkers and circlers: new ways of thinking about policy and evidence?

By olsen.skip under CC at flickr.com

By olsen.skip under CC at flickr.com

This is the third post of a series focusing on how we can better incorporate the complexity paradigm as a key framework to tackle the challenges and questions shared by many of us interested in the interaction between research and policy.

Promoting a culture where policy and evidence engage in a more fruitful dialogue is certainly a complex business. Complexity does not only entail the difficulties of working to bridge logics, timing and needs, but it is also embedded in the way we conceptualise our interventions.

Dena Lomofsky, collaborator of P&I, has recently shared a paper by Reina Neufeldt that has shed a lot of light into the way I think about interventions to promote a more fruitful interaction between politics and ideas.

Neufeldt has found that there are two different “sets of people who blend across the lines of development and conflict transformation work and possess very different arguments about how to conceptualise and operationalise issues of impact and change in programme design, monitoring and evaluation”. She calls them frameworkers and circlers. Even though she has identified these groups in peacebuilding initiatives, I think they very much apply to most of development projects.

For the first constituency, called the “frameworkers”, programme design, as well as monitoring and evaluation systems, is based on linear, cause-effect thinking, or causal chains, and programmes or projects are explicitly laid out with their assumptions in logical frameworks – hence the name..

Consequently, frameworkers approach impact with respect to the degree to which particular activities and outputs are met, as well as the degree to which those activities and their outputs contribute to larger or higher-order objectives and goals. Furthermore, indicators for activities, outputs, results or objectives are to be “SMART”, meaning: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (Roche 1999).

Some of the underlying assumptions embedded within this approach are that we know and can measure impact and progress through objective variables and we can, to a reasonable degree, predict the impact of our programmes during the design stages.

Probably most of us have dealt with this way of approaching some of our projects, since it is the prevalent paradigm among donors and we are frequently required to develop this type of logical frames to design our projects and programmes. This is also applicable to the way many policymakers are required to present their programs to receive budget approval.

On the other hand, the second constituency, called “circlers” approach programmes using a more elliptical method. Neufeldt describes that “They are relationship-focused and tend to have an accompanying desire to be flexible and responsive to each situation. Circlers argue that what they are often most interested in is un-measurable; they seek community-based, organic processes and view frameworks as too focused on achieving pre-set outcomes. They do not think that events in conflict environments can be predicted, because events are constructed by multiple, interlocking influences, which at any one moment might be thought of as a “cause” or an “effect” or both intertwined. Causality is therefore not necessarily linear or a “chained” series of events. Circlers are interested in the uniqueness of interventions and communities – they focus on the stories and lessons that emerge from specific cultural, geographic and temporal contexts and do not expect these to be generalizable.”

There are also several underlying assumptions within this approach such as the belief that every situation is unique so that lessons are not transferable, and that planning has limitations; flexibility is always an asset.

Predictably, there are several misunderstandings and clashes between frameworkers and circlers, which take place within the working environment of State agencies and think tanks as well. As Neufeldt, argues “circlers often suggest frameworkers are too rigid and western. They fear that the frameworker approach represents a strong bias of western modes of thought that is often inappropriate in the diverse and variegated community contexts in which they work. Frameworkers, on the other hand, suggest circlers are scattered and vague. They fear that circlers do not invest enough time or energy in planning nor thinking critically about what can be accomplished and therefore worry that overall impact and effectiveness are undermined.”

This poses a challenge for the policymaking and research worlds since there are circlers and frameworkers operating in both of them. In fact, in my interaction with both members from think tanks and policymakers I frequently find that the way they think about the problem of how to make research and policy interact better: some come around it by trying to develop a structured and linear approach to push forward some specific changes while others analyse the set of factors that interplay in this link and they tend to simultaneously respond to opportunities that arise through interactions and relatiionships.

There is an opportunity to blend these cultures and think about new ways of working jointly to promote a richer interaction between policy and research.  In this direction, circlers can help a lot by fostering that we first zoom out (i.e. see the big picture that surrounds our work). This means that we need to step back, consider the entire system, observe all the links between components/parts (i.e. who could affect whom, why and how, especially in terms of power relationships). Frameworkers could then complement this effort by zooming in: helping detect where the concrete opportunities for change reside and being more specific about what could be done, how, including monitoring and evaluating the effects of our work.

By carefully listening to each other, circlers and frameworkers can make both lenses work more effectively together so that the both the trees and the forest are observed and cared for. Interventions can focus on very specific and small scale activities that are carefully selected taking into account how different stakeholders could affect or be affected by them based on an understanding of their environment and relationships. The still picture and the movie can be combined, with a dynamic approach where one acknowledges the continuous movement and organic nature of the system but also observes and nurtures its individual contribution to some specific components, trying to make the most from one´s own place.

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