What are they?
The Actor-Based Change Framework (ABC) is a participatory approach that was initially developed by Andrew Koleros and published in 2018. It is an invaluable aid to developing a meaningful, evidence- and PEA-informed Useful Theory of Change (what is this?). While the initial paper reflects on a fairly nascent and academic model of it, I have been developing the idea into something broader and more accessible. Drew has recognised me as being one of the foremost ABC practioners in the world. Based on recent uses of it, Drew and I are working on a practioner’s guide to ABC. As soon as this is ready the references in this will be updated.
ABC weaves together systems-thinking, complexity science, and behaviour change theory to help you map out the informal systems that give rise to the problem that your programme is aiming to address. While often a Cold Hose over programme plans, ABC ensures that you have actively understood the terrain within which your programme will operate and therefore accurately plot your hypothesis for change. It then becomes a powerful monitoring and evaluation tool that aids swift programme adaptation by holding a symbiotic relationship with your theory of change.
 Koleros, A., The Actor-Based Change Framework: A Pragmatic Approach to Developing Programme Theory for Interventions in Complex Systems, American Journal of Evaluation, 2018
 Mayne, J., Useful Theories of Change, Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 2015
How do I do it?
ABC is a powerful tool, but not a silver bullet. Nevertheless I have found it invaluable to my work, and my programme teams have as well.
ABC is all about behaviour and influence, not about formal hierarchies or existing formalised structures. It capitalises on contextual knowledge to construct informal systems that exist around – and give rise to – problems. It then supports you to solve part of that problem with the resources you have to hand.
ABC is best understood through a workshop so do reach out if you want to talk about that option, but in lieu of that, please find guidance and support below. Please make sure you’ve read my guidance on Theories of Change first.
Until the manual comes out, please read the paper and use this 6-step model I find makes ABC easier. These steps break ABC down into parts that make it feel more manageable. Please note that this all speaks to the Useful Theory of Change model. Then, once it feels coherent, below you will find templates for some pre-work exercises that I often use in trainings as well as the kinds of skeletons and checklists that I use as a trainer. However, I will emphasise that you do need an experienced facilitator for this, and for groups larger than 8 you will need two.
Step 1: Identify your problem.
This is a problem focused approach. You take that problem, define it, and draw out the causes and consequences.
Sometimes causes are themselves consequences. Be aware of these situations and find the slight differences that occur in cyclical causal situations. If harmful gender norms are both causes and consequences, what does that mean? Maybe the cause is that women are seen as having fewer rights, and the consequence is that women receive even lesser status in their community. They’re different ends of the same field of harmful gender norms. Getting this right is crucial as the first steps to an accurate ABC-F hinges on this
Step 2: Identify your actors associated with it.
Then, once defined, we think about the actors associated with it. an actor can be a particularly influential individual – such as a minister – or a group – such as community faith leaders.
Step 3: build your AB systems map with influence lines.
You then as a group map out the actors we have decided are associated, and the lines of influence. This gives you an A-B SM! Crucially, this sets your system boundaries. By pre-defining the problem and actors, you have clear limits on the system you will be working with.
NOW. This can be really tricky as it’s easy to fall into mapping hierarchies or existing systems. That’s not what we are after. We want who influences who.
For example, in the Kyrgyz central government apparatus, an ABC participant may want to draw an influence line from the head of the GA to the deputy head, and from the head to the senior managers. This is the formal reporting structure, sure, but not where the influence lies. Really the deputy head influences all of those stakeholders as he is protected from political whims and stays in position more safely. That’s where the power lies. THIS is what our systems map is after.
Hands up if you’ve been half-way through a programme and realised that you’re working with the wrong people? It’s a really common issue, and ABC helps you try to avoid that ahead of time.
If we know where the influence lies, then we have the informal system. Our flock of birds. All we need is to understand how each is moving. What are the key behaviours contributing to, driving, or relating to the problem? Identifying that gives us an actor-based behavioural systems map.
Step 4: find a meaningful in. If you can’t, reconsider your intervention or find a friend.
To change a system, you need a good lever to pull. In systems-speak these can be called nodes or hubs, but I’ll call them ‘ins’.
A good ‘in’ is an actor group that has chains of influence through the informal ‘system’ you have just created. That is to say, if your ‘in’ starts behaving differently, will they bring others with them? If not… time to bring out the cold hose (ABC is a great cold hose) and reconsider your ‘in’ or your intervention altogether. Alternatively, see if you can buddy up with another implementer in the system and combine your ‘in’s to achieve a more catalytic change.
Step 5: identify the problem behaviours, and do a change frame for the problem behaviour of your ‘in’, and identify which you can affect. If it’s out of scope, reconsider your intervention or find a friend.
Now, I have talked a lot about systems maps and potential for change, but less on the ‘how’s of change. Once you’ve established a decent ‘in’ in terms of affecting this system, ABC has a straight forward approach to unpacking the behaviour change elements of this in such a way that it translates into a theory of change.
You will have identified the current state behaviour of that actor group that contributes to the problem. You then process to use a handy COM-B model to unpack how this might turn into a ‘future state’ behaviour that is more desirable.
For example, moving from a police force with the behaviour of ‘ineffective and poorly coordinated service provision’ to ‘effective, targeted, and coordinated service provision’
Once you have your COM-B model… time for the cold hose again. As a team, you have to assess which changes are in- or out-of-scope. If the behaviour change is not possible for your intervention to bring about, you simply will not see that catalytic change. Either reconsider the intervention, change the intervention, or buddy up with another implementer to bring about the change.
For example: you may be able to provide capacity building to the police force but cannot fund technology that would make coordination easier. If, however, another actor could fund the technology… then collectively you can bring about the behaviour change.
Do this step for every single ‘in’ you have in the system, and you will be able to build a series of mini ‘theories of action’ for each actor group: what the behaviour change will be, the COM change to bring it about, and the reach & reaction is automatically filled in. The next steps are just to consider what your activities will be and what goods and services they will produce to bring about these COM and behaviour changes.
Step 6: align this work to your ToC, and add all relevant assumptions.
These theories of action will start to stack up: you have a string of activities, goods and services, reaches and reactions, COM changes and behaviour changes. It starts to become clear how this mirrors your Useful ToC. The next stages are to connect the behaviour changes with Direct BEnefits and a Sustainable Positive Change… well.
We started with a problem, right? The inverse of that will be your sustainable positive change. All that is left is to identify the beneficial intermediary step between your behaviour changes and a mitigated systemic problem and…voila! You are done.
If you want more, some of my tools and templates are below. As always feel free to reach out if you want to talk.
Intro to ABC: slides with presenter’s notes.