Theory of Change

Executive Summary

This module is part of the Strategic ‘golden threads’ section and is closely aligned with the Family Hub Development Process and Evaluating Family Hubs module.  

Developing a theory of change for your family hub will help you to ensure your model is based on the best available local and national evidence; help you to articulate a shared vision and secure buy-in from partners and families; and will provide a basis for monitoring, evaluating and learning as you implement your approach.  

The National Centre for Family Hubs and What Works for Early Intervention and Children’s Social Care has devised a development process for areas to use as they plan and introduce family hubs in their locality.  The first two stages of the process are underpinned by a theory of change approach. This practical guide to developing a theory of change aims to support you to apply this process in your area.  It offers a step-by-step approach, working through the four elements based on four key questions: what, why, who and how?   

This systematic process will help you to reach a conceptually tight explanation as to what change needs to occur and why you expect your family hub to deliver the desired outcomes.  You can use your theory of change and narrative to demonstrate to strategic partners that your family hub development is well thought out and evidence based, with a clear focus on outcomes for families.   

The theory of change process supports you to make aims and plans explicit, and to reflect and discuss with others.  It is important not to approach your theory of change like a ‘box-ticking’ exercise that you complete and do not return to. Rather, a theory of change is a live document, actively maintained to reflect changes to your local context and the development of your family hub model. 

We recommend reading the Family Hubs Development Process module along with this module.  

What is a theory of change?

A theory of change describes how, and why, you expect the development of your local family hub to achieve its intended outcomes, based on the available evidence.   

The theory you have about what will happen (and why) when you implement your family hub is likely to be based on certain assumptions. These assumptions should be based on evidence – because interventions rooted in evidence about what works have a greater chance of benefitting children and families. The evidence and assumptions might relate to the specific needs and preferences of families in your communities, what activities improve your desired outcomes, or what factors protect or put certain outcomes at risk.  

Putting together a theory of change involves setting out explicitly the evidence and assumptions your approach is based on, articulating why your family hub development is needed, who it is for, how it will work and the impact you intend it to have.   

The process of developing a theory of change will therefore help you articulate a shared vision with partners, test how far implementation plans are evidence based, and give you a basis from which to monitor and evaluate the success of your family hub.   

Why develop a family hubs theory of change?

Developing and introducing a family hub model is a complex piece of work which will involve numerous partners and stakeholders. It will have implications for, and an impact on, the whole system of services and support for families in your area. Too often, areas undertaking this type of complex, system-wide development have not taken space to clearly set out how their collective action will result in their desired outcomes, or how they will know whether they are achieving these outcomes. A lack of clarity about assumptions and outcomes at the outset may be a missed opportunity to learn from your experience or verify effectiveness further on in the process. A theory of change that is both practical and firmly rooted in evidence gives local areas a basis on which to judge whether provision is working as intended, and if it is not working, it can help you to understand why this might be, and to adapt and respond.   

A theory of change can be a particularly useful tool to support a complex, system-wide approach because it offers an opportunity to look at activities together and not in isolation. The process of building your theory of change allows you to consider the interactions between different activities and services, which in turn lays the foundation for understanding their collective impact on families.   

Your family hubs theory of change can: 

  • inform strategic decision-making, by building or informing the strategic case for the family hub – including a rationale for addressing key gaps in provision and commissioning, or required developments in ways of working 
  • encourage a focus on outcomes and evidence rather than a focus on processes and outputs 
  • underpin evaluation and learning, providing a blueprint for your evaluation through identification of outcomes (long term or short term) as indicators of success, from which you can assess progress 
  • enhance the effectiveness of provision, by ensuring that decisions about the approaches you put in place are based on the best possible evidence. A clear theory of change will help you to clarify the ‘ingredients for success’ in the change you are introducing – and to ensure that key components are not compromised in the messy complexity of implementing change. 
  • facilitate partnership working:

Before you begin

Using a theory of change to set out the key outcomes for your family hub development can seem like a daunting exercise. But with good planning, a focus on evidence and co-creation with partners from across your local area, it can be a manageable and beneficial exercise. To get the most out of developing your theory of change, it is important to plan your approach. 


Co-producing: who needs to be involved and how? 

Developing a successful theory of change is a process of active inquiry and dialogue rather than a static, desk-based piece of work (although desk-based work is a crucial element).   

To achieve the benefits we have outlined, you will need to involve the full range of services and stakeholders who will be involved in delivering family hubs in your area.  You may want to begin this process with a stakeholder mapping exercise. Some thoughts to bear in mind:  

  • In addition to considering the public and voluntary sector services that will have a direct role in your family hub development, consider other regional or community stakeholders that it would be helpful to have on the journey with you, and how to engage them. 
  • Consider early on how best to hear the voices of families who are current or intended beneficiaries of the hub, and how to involve them. This will help ensure you identify the time, resources and planning needed to make your approach as inclusive as possible. 
  • As part of the National Centre for Family Hub’s implementation toolkit, we have developed a module specifically on co-production and we recommend accessing this resource for guidance on involving families in the development of your family hub theory of change.   
  • Involve staff members with different types of experience. For example, practitioners working directly with families can draw on their practical knowledge of what happens on the ground, while those working at a strategic level can bring their knowledge of the wider context.  

The way you engage with stakeholders in developing your theory of change will reflect your local and regional partnership working arrangements and your existing interfaces and relationships with families and community groups. It will make sense to use existing structures as much as possible. It is likely, however, that you will need to create some additional time and space to fully benefit from the wide range of intelligence, experience and insight available locally, and to reflect collectively on the best way for your family hub model to deliver the change you want to see. 

The National Centre for Family Hubs is working with several areas that are developing a theory of change. Below are some early suggestions based on wider experience and general good practice:    

  • Take the time to clearly lay out the steps you will take to bring your theory of change together, as this will help a range of stakeholders to engage with you. As with any process, being transparent about your planned approach and having clear feedback loops will be more empowering and inclusive for partners.   
  • Developing a theory of change is not resource or time neutral, so you will need to consider the resources you require – for desk-based work, collating and reviewing local data and intelligence, and for partnership dialogue. Planning your approach in advance will also help you to pinpoint any dependencies or other moving parts. For example, the theory of change for your family hub may have a bearing on outcome and monitoring frameworks or on workforce development plans. 
  • Consider how the combination of stakeholder engagement and dialogue opportunities you create can both reach broad audiences (e.g., larger events or consultative exercises) and allow for in-depth discussions (e.g., smaller workshops with representatives more closely involved in designing activity). Additional thought might be needed to ensure that throughout this process, you are able to listen to diverse voices and consider the experiences of the children and families in your communities. 

Stakeholder mapping  

Stakeholder mapping can help you maximise the effectiveness of your family hub development process. It takes a systematic approach to identifying the people and organisations that will influence whether or not you are successful, and to putting in place strategies for involving stakeholders in the most appropriate and effective way at the right time. Relevant stakeholders will include both people and organisations with a direct or formal role in your planning, and those with an informal or indirect influence on the outcomes you want to achieve.  

Begin by listing all the potential stakeholders. Doing this as a group activity can help you get the best possible picture. You might consider:    

  • sectors – public, private, voluntary and community sector organisations or agencies   
  • functions – service users, service providers, suppliers, venue owners, regulators or decision-makers   
  • geography – think about the rural and urban geographies in your area and any regional stakeholders you might engage   
  • characteristics – socio-economic or demographic, such as age, income and ethnicity.   

You can map each stakeholder on a set of axes with their level of influence (high to low) on one axis, and their level of interest (high to low) on the other axis. Taking these factors into account will help you to design an effective communication and engagement approach.  

Gathering and collating relevant data and intelligence

To set out your rationale for introducing a family hub and how you intend it to address the needs and priorities of families in your area, you will need to gather information and insight held locally about the nature of that need and the characteristics and effectiveness of the support families are currently receiving.

Consider how you can: 

  • bring together information that reflects families’ needs, their interactions with services, their journey into and through available support, and gaps in reach and provision 
  • hear from a range of people about the support they need and the support available to them, including children and young people, parents and carers, people with protected characteristics, people from minoritised groups and practitioners 
  • reflect on strengths and weaknesses in how the local system is working for families, for example the impact of current multi-agency working arrangements or front- and back-office systems.  

Step-by-step guide to developing a theory of change

Theories of change come in several formats and use a range of different approaches. The approach set out here is one of many and is provided as a helpful guide – it is not intended to be restrictive.

When developing a theory of change for your local family hub, we suggest these questions are answered in the following order:  

  • Start with your understanding of the current situation – a problem analysis – drawing on insight about local needs, the characteristics and preferences of the population you want to serve, and the strengths and weaknesses of your existing local system and offer. This can give you a clear picture of your ‘why’ and ‘who’ (and may highlight gaps in insight that you want to address over time). 
  • It is important that the approach you adopt is focused on the outcomes you want to achieve, so the next step is the ‘what’.  This helps to ensure that your theory of change is centred on outcomes rather than outputs (which can happen if you start with activities).  
  • The final step, the ‘how’, can then be clearly positioned as a response to your local context, and based on the available evidence about what will move you towards your desired outcomes. 

Why a family hub model?

The first element to set out in your theory of change is why you plan to introduce a family hub model. It can also be understood as a ‘problem definition’ – describing the problem your family hub will address – or as a rationale for action.  

A desk-based analysis of the data and insight that you already hold, can provide a great deal of insight to explain why family hubs are needed locally.    

Constructing a narrative analysis of the data – ‘the story that data tells’ – will involve reflection with stakeholders. To build consensus and secure buy-in between partners locally, this narrative analysis should include deliberation about:   

  • what is understood about the needs of local families and where there are gaps in understanding that need to be addressed, or the potential blind spots in current data and insight  
  • how far the data assembled is reflective of experiences ‘on the ground’ (via lived experience and practitioners’ frontline work) and how this information can enrich the picture   
  • how far the multi-agency system currently works to support children and families and what the strengths and areas for development are  
  • where data requires some interpretation, for example in understanding why a service offer has a good take-up or impact in some localities or for some groups but not for others.  

Addressing the ‘why’ element of your theory of change should build consensus about the case for change, a shared assessment of the current delivery of support for children, young people and families, and how the development of family hubs in your area could improve it. A written, evidence-based, problem analysis provides the foundation for the theory of change.  

The family hub development process: building consensus on the need for change. The Family Hub Development Process provides a suggested structure for a stakeholder workshop to review and discuss the results of the initial data-gathering work. This provides an opportunity for stakeholders to have a dialogue and build consensus about needs and priorities for children and families; local systems strengths and areas for development; strategic priorities, risks and readiness; and the case for change. 

Who will your family hub benefit?

Your theory of change should next describe as fully as possible the populations who you intend your family hub to benefit.  The information gathering and deliberative process described under ‘why’ above can also be used to make sure the descriptions and assumptions set out here are as evidence-based as possible.   

The ‘who’ is a crucial element in the theory of change because the specific characteristics, requirements and preferences of the groups you aim to benefit will have a defining influence on the design and impact of your family hub approach.   

Given the complexity of the family hub model, it is likely that this will involve identifying some distinct segments or groupings within the family population. For example, there may be some groups you would specifically like to engage in certain types of service or support; groups who have particular access needs; and groups who have preferences for support in different forms or through different channels. Consider what assumptions you are making in your plans make about how various target populations will interact with your family hub. Set out the knowledge base or evidence base for the assumptions you are making. There may be evidence from wider research or other contexts which you can draw upon to inform the way you approach or support families.  

In the ‘who’ aspect of your theory of change you may consider:   

  • variations in needs and preferences, considering, for example, differing socio-economic groups, cultures, ages and geographies, and the needs and preferences of people with disabilities. groups who are not currently engaging with support or services  
  • what is currently understood about different service user journeys and experiences.   

Co-developing your theory of change helps to make sure the model you adopt is informed by the lived experiences of those you aim to support. The National Centre for Family Hubs’ implementation toolkit discusses some helpful approaches to co-production.   

What are the intended outcomes for your family hub?

The outcomes for your family hub are the changes you aim to achieve through implementing your family hub model. In identifying the most important outcomes for your family hub model, you may want to reflect on:  

  • local intelligence gathering about the needs and priorities for families (the ‘why’ and ‘who’ above)  
  • pre-existing local and national strategies or outcome frameworks that relate to the family hub’s aims and activity  
  • regional and national policy and directives.  

If your theory of change identifies several target groups, this may be reflected in your outcomes. It can also be helpful for your theory of change to distinguish between primary outcomes and intermediate outcomes or impacts.    

  • Primary outcomes

    Your primary outcomes should reflect the ultimate, long-term impact that you would like the family hub to have on families’ lives. These are the ultimate measures against which you will evaluate the success and impact of your family hub. However, it can be difficult to discern change in these outcomes over the short term. They are often affected by a complex interplay of factors and may be vulnerable to influences that are difficult to control, such as environmental or economic changeExamples of outcome domains that have come up in early family hub evaluation work led by Ecorys include health, education, early childhood development, social capital, employment and crime. 

  • Intermediate impacts

    Intermediate impacts reflect what you hope to see in the shorter term as a result of the services, support or changes that you introduce. They can be more directly attributed to the work happening through the family hub and can help you to judge whether things are moving in the right direction. The areas being evaluated through Ecorys’ work that may show an intermediate impact include improvements to the knowledge, confidence and skills of the workforce or families, earlier access to help, and healthier parental lifestyle choices.   

    There should be a clear and logical causal relationship between the intermediate impacts and the long-term outcomes, supported by evidence. A robust theory of change will support an ‘if/then’ assumption:  

    if shorter-term outcomes are achieved, then (the evidence suggests) this will contribute to the primary outcomes we want to see.  

    It will also answer the question:   

    How do I know this to be true? What existing source of knowledge does this assumption draw on?  

    It may be that a clear evidence base does not exist and the assumption is based on professional intuition or anecdotal lived experience. In this situation, consider how your monitoring and evaluation activity can test the assumption and contribute to filling the evidence gap.  

    Reaching agreement across partners and stakeholders in your area about the outcomes that your family hub will focus on is a key part of developing a shared vision around the transformation and improvement in families’ lives. As outlined in the steps above, cross-stakeholder dialogue will be important in amplifying the voices of a range of partners and securing buy-in for the family hub model.    

How will outcomes be achieved?

The ‘how’ element of the theory of change should explain how your family hub will achieve the desired outcomes. It should focus on the mechanisms of change: what you need beneficiaries to be thinking, feeling and doing while accessing and engaging with support from the family hub network.

It might set out:

  • What are the key features of the family hub model?
  • What do these features look like? How often and how long do they support the targeted groups?
  • How do families access and engage with the support from family hubs?
  • What are the tangible outputs that will signal that the family hub model is effective?

There are some core characteristics to any family hub: its implementation will reflect the offer of a system-wide model, providing high-quality, joined-up, whole-family support services spanning conception to age 19 (or age 25 for young people with special educational needs and disabilities). However, each family hub model is also highly bespoke to the local community it serves, for example in the way it mixes physical and virtual spaces, its delivery channels and outreach approach, and the specifics of its front door and support and service offer. However, it is likely that your ‘how’ will consider the three key delivery principles that underpin all family hubs:

  • Access

    Providing a clear and simple way for families with children of all ages to access help and support through a family hub building and a family hub approach. 

  • Connection
    1. Services work together for families, with a universal ‘front door’, shared outcomes and effective governance.  
    2. Professionals work together through co-location, data-sharing and a common approach to their work. Families only have to tell their story once, the service is more efficient, and families receive more effective support.  
    3. Statutory services and voluntary and community sector partners work together to get families the help they need. 
  • Relationships
    1. The family hub prioritises bolstering relationships and builds on family strengths. 
    2. Relationships are at the heart of everything that is delivered in family hubs. 

Your theory of change should clearly set out the evidence base or assumptions which lead you to believe that your model will achieve the intended outcomes. It should be clear that the ‘how’ addresses the areas for change outlined in ‘why’ and will deliver the intended outcomes for the populations you have identified.   

The rationale you set out here should draw on published research and academic literature where it is available. Where other types of information inform your plans – for example theoretical models, promising practice from other areas, or professional or community insight – this should be captured explicitly in your theory of change. Through implementing your model and monitoring its impact, you will be able to assess whether these assumptions and evidence are valid in your own context, and whether revision is needed.   

Family hubs offer a complex system of support for families, incorporating a number of different interventions, types of help and supporting processes. Your theory of change speaks to the family hub model overall and specifies why your outcomes are important and the evidence needed to support this. This is useful for conceptualising the theory behind the development of your family hub model, however it may also be helpful to break this down and to set out in greater detail the contribution that particular aspects will make to the overarching outcomes.    

Moderating factors

As a final element in your theory of change, you should set out any factors that will influence whether your family hub model will result in the outcomes that you hope for. These will reflect the strategic risks for your family hubs programme and any dependencies for the changes you are introducing. You may want to consider any barriers, enablers or contextual factors that will influence whether your theory of change is realised in the way you anticipate

Using and reviewing your theory of change

Your theory of change provides the basis for a monitoring and outcome framework for your family hub and for the evaluation of your model. Outcome measures and indicators should reflect the outcomes set out in the ‘what’ element. Your activity monitoring should also track whether you are reaching the families you originally intended to reach and your progress in implementing key components of delivery identified in the ‘how’ element. This allows you to test out your theory of change, and to assess and revise your assumptions.   

Your theory of change should therefore be reviewed as a ‘live’ document rather than treated as a fixed plan. As you monitor your progress and learn about what does and does not work in your context your original assumptions are likely to change or evolve, and there will be refinements or adaptations to your delivery model.   

Build regular review into the rhythm of performance monitoring, ensuring there are clear points at which your theory of change is reviewed by the appropriate bodies in your partnership governance arrangements. Record your learning and the refinements you make over time so they can inform other developments locally, as well as the development of family hub models across the country. The National Centre for Family Hubs provides open-access resources on our website and free webinars and training events available to all local authorities, to support you in your family hub development. In addition, we offer regional support and coordinate community of practice events to provide an environment of shared learning for the continuous improvement of support for families.   

Tips and pitfalls in developing your theory of change 

  1. Keep it simple and clear – theories of change are simplifications of reality and it is impossible to capture everything. You can put details in accompanying notes, but it is essential that your theory of change makes sense to people who did not develop it, including practitioners and beneficiaries.   
  2. Be logical – each element plausibly leading to the next through a coherent causal chain leading to your outcomes.   
  3. Don’t ignore risks, unintended consequences, or uncertainties – take time to reflect and consider how to mitigate these.  
  4. Use evidence to test ‘if/then’ assumptions – and do pay attention to how this evidence relates to your own specific context.  
  5. Distinguish process and output from outcome.   
  6. Create co-ownership – and don’t be afraid of disagreement along the way.  
  7. Review it as a ‘live’ document – it isn’t a fixed plan – refine it as more evidence becomes available or as your own evaluation provides challenge or support for your assumptions. 

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