Towards a New Theory of Change

Do political parties really hold the key to our redemption?

In much of the developing world, political parties - through control of the state - have been historically seen as the key engines for bringing about economic prosperity and a more just society. However, this expectation has not come to pass in many developing countries. To fill the void, civil society has been taking an increasingly active role in tackling social problems. So, perhaps we need a new theory of change?

Old Problems, New Solutions

Photo by David Bygott

Since time immemorial, people have been seeking to bring about social change that leads to a more just society. Traditionally, the key actor in this enterprise has been cast as the state, controlled by political parties through a representative democratic system. Within this context, civil society actors have been cast in a secondary role. However, four key trends have the potential to fundamentally change this.

Firstly, technological innovations in education, health care, energy, water, sanitation and building technologies have opened the way for more and more people to access quality, affordable services and shelter outside of sourcing these solely from the state.

Second, the dawn of the millennial generation has seen a growing rise in social entrepreneurship – businesses specifically established to address a particular social problem in a financially viable manner. At scale, these social enterprises have the potential to plug key state delivery gaps. In addition, many non-profit organizations - under pressure to improve internal governance, cost efficiencies and show measureable social impact, are beginning to adopt more entrepreneurial business models1.

Third, the growth of the impact finance sector has created the opportunity for social enterprises (entrepreneurs and non-profits) to access low cost finance to provide critical services without being dependent on government grants.

Fourth, more and more leading members of the corporate sector have begun to recast their roles, moving away from a focus on short-term profits to a focus on broader societal benefits. Some of these corporates have already begun to work in partnership with social entrepreneurs, impact investors and intermediaries to drive collective impact, thus creating an opportunity to fundamentally reshape corporate business’ relationship with society2.

Hence, as political parties continue struggling to fulfill their developmental mandate and non-state actors take an increasing role in tackling social problems, it may be time to review our assumptions regarding the role and shape of the state as well as the key actors who should drive social change.

Time to take a fresh look at the role and shape of the state

Reshaping the Role of the State

The growing role of non-state actors in developing innovative solutions to social problems has led to a growing focus on 'new public governance'.

Whilst the concept of governance - which relates to the processes by which one shapes the relationship between civil society and the state – is not new, until recently the primary focus has been on state decision-making, the management of public resources, accountability and transparency rather than redefining what the state does vis-a-vis civil society.

In addition, though the notion of public services being delivered by non-state actors has also been prevalent for some time, particularly with the adoption of New Public Management approaches in the 1990s3, the core focus of these initiatives was on increasing efficiency by creating quasi-markets within the state, privatizing certain public services and creating competition between public and private providers so that communities, who were classified as customers, could choose freely between the two4.

Whilst greater efficiency remains important, new public governance – in contrast - is primarily focused on enhancing public value and social impact. Public value is defined as the outcomes achieved per unit spent. Thus, instead of just driving input and process optimization, a focus on social impacts roots success in the actual outcomes achieved. For example, in terms of value-based healthcare, the focus is on what matters for patients and the health care delivery system is thus structured around optimizing patient 5. Moreover, rather than casting competition as the key mechanism for better performance, new public governance emphasizes new types of public-private collaboration through networks and partnerships.

This represents a shift from 19th century ideological constructs regarding what is public and private to embrace hybrid business models structured around redesigned, outcomes-based service delivery arrangements. The focus on outcomes and value also has the potential to overcome the challenges faced by traditional, purely commercial public-private partnerships, which inevitably saw the private party put their commercial interests before the achievement of developmental outcomes. In addition, the use of independent intermediaries to manage the performance of service providers complimented by the external, independent evaluation of results and the quality of services received, helps to ensure that poor communities are better rather than worse off in these arrangements.

Lastly, rather than seeing communities as merely beneficiaries or customers, new public governance positions citizens as co-producers and co-creators of public services6.

Built around the concept of design thinking, where the solutions to social problems are co-designed with communities and other stakeholders rather than for them, co-creation is seen as central to the process of driving systemic change. Co-production, on the other hand, involves "the provision of services through regular, long-term relationships between professionalized service providers (in any sector, [not only the state]) and service users or other members of the community, where all parties make substantial resource contributions"7.

An example of co-production would be 'distributed commissioning' where a purchaser, which could be a government, a development agency, a foundation or a company, works through many smaller commissioning bodies at community level to choose the public services to be provided in conjunction with the community and according to the community's own priorities8.

Such arrangements would have a significant impact on catalyzing active citizenship and could be used in a variety of services such as health care provision, waste management, the construction and management of small scale community facilities etc. Moreover, in instances where community structures are fractured and leadership contested, the commissioning bodies would act as critical intermediaries, ensuring that impact objectives are met.

All of the above has significant implications for our current systems of government.

"We are the ones we have been waiting for" Barack Obama

Time for a Paradigm Shift

New public governance raises questions about the appropriateness of current state service planning and delivery mechanisms as well as processes of decision-making. It also leads to questions about tax regimes and distribution within the context of multiple service delivery agents and sources of funding for social programs.

In developing countries with a strong civil society, it potentially creates the opportunity to develop a non-traditional growth path. One that is less political party-centric and more focused on the role of civil society actors in driving economic prosperity and social justice. A civil society-centric growth path requires a shift from a reliance on procedural, representative democracy through political parties to a greater focus on direct, substantive democracy and collective impact. However, developing such a growth path will require a significant shift in our thinking.

Creating this shift requires that we change the stories that we tell. By identifying and popularizing scalable social innovations that work, we can reset the way we think about our present and our future and thus redefine possibility. Hopefully, that will result in a growing recognition by every single one of us that our salvation does not lie in political parties but in ourselves. To paraphrase Bob Marley, let’s stop singing redemption songs. It’s time to compose new songs of freedom.

SI Global is a collaborative intermediary organization dedicated to scaling up social innovation in Africa and other emerging markets.
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  1. Stuart L (2013). The South African Nonprofit Sector: Struggling to Survive, Needing to Thrive. Retrieved from
  2. A good example of this is the work done by Yellowwoods through their subsidiaries, Nandos and Hollard Insurance, as well as through their Inclusive Growth Catalyst.
  3. See Osborne D and Gaebler T (1992). Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector. Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley.
  4. Sorenson E & Torfing J (2015). Enhancing Public Innovation through Collaboration, Leadership and New Public Governance in Nicholls A, Simon J & Gabriel M, Eds (2015). New Frontiers in Social Innovation Research. Hampshire. Palgrave Macmillan. p162.
  5. Porter ME (2010). What is Value in Health Care? New England Journal of Medicine. Retrieved from
  6. Ibid. p163.
  7. Bovaird T (2007). Beyond Engagement and Participation: User and Community Coproduction for Public Services. Carnegie Trust. UK. p5. Also published In Public Administration Review 67(5), September. pp846 - 860.
  8. Ibid. p7.