The Theory of Change: taking an example from the Dutch national police

Michiel Zonneveld | 09 April 2015

Another Perspective is The Broker’s new blog. The title reflects The Broker’s ambition to look at globalization issues in different ways. Through this blog, we also keep our followers up to date on matters that concern us.

How do you achieve significant results? That was the main question addressed at a meeting on the Theory of Change at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 2 March. Interestingly, the Dutch police are also engaged in this discussion, in the context of the fight against organized crime. Police work has become increasingly professional and is certainly achieving results but, at the same time, there has been a growing feeling of unease among senior police officers that it often does little more than patch things up. What point is there in closing down drugs laboratories if the criminal organizations behind them continue to exist or simply start up again elsewhere? Are there no ways to tackle such criminal activities more structurally? I have written a number of articles on how the police are answering these questions (pdf).

Dilemmas like these are familiar to those who took part in the discussion at the foreign ministry on 2 March. And these are also questions that we at The Broker have been addressing for many years. I think that the police and policy-makers concerned with international cooperation can learn the following lessons from each other:

1. Take enough time for a thorough problem and context analysis 

The police consider themselves a rapid response organization. Whenever a crime is committed or some other crisis occurs, they take immediate action. The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence respond in a similar way to acute humanitarian crises. There will always be a need to act quickly. But structural changes call for a different way of thinking and working. Step 1 means taking time to determine exactly what the underlying problem is and in what context it arises. This must be a continual process, because the context keeps changing.

2. The art of looking through different lenses

The police have a tendency to automatically look at problems from the perspective of criminal law. This is the basic principle of their work and that of the Public Prosecution Service. But such an approach falls short if you want to take account of the deeper-lying problems and the context in which they can arise. You have to look from different angles, otherwise blind spots emerge and you have an inadequate view of the context.  And this is exactly the challenge facing us in our interventions in Mali and our wider aid programmes. The UN mission in Mali is expressly multidimensional, and with good reason (its name, MINUSMA, stands for Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali). Unfortunately, it is not easy to look at reality through different lenses. MINUSMA is primarily a military operation and finds it difficult to relate to the rapidly changing context (for an overview of the dynamics of the conflict in Mali, see The Broker’s ‘living analysis’ in our Sahel Watch programme. 

3. The art of (equal!) cooperation

A logical follow-up question is therefore what parties are required to achieve the desired results. This calls for two things to be considered: what resources are needed and what parties can provide them. The Dutch police work closely with the tax authorities, municipalities and entrepreneurs, while the foreign ministry is continually exploring avenues for cooperating with different actors and stakeholders. But cooperation remains an elusive art. It is more than a quest for extra capacity. You will need to consult with your partners on the problem analysis and the relevant context. That means that the partners must be able to fully understand each other’s motives and  objectives. That is difficult for the police, who are used to defining problems only from their own perspective and then taking the lead themselves. Now they have to learn that it might be better to let someone else hold the reins. You could be optimistic and say that, in the world of the foreign ministry, cooperation is all part of the game. In the international arena, more than in the fields of domestic security and crime-fighting, multiple actors are involved. A more pessimistic viewpoint would say that international cooperation is often a clash of disciplines. At the foreign ministry, it is organized according to themes, which often work independently of each other, and coherence with the work of other ministries also leaves much to be desired. Little time and effort is devoted to joint problem analyses and formulating truly comprehensive strategies. 

4. Looking at results in another way

The question that is addressed here was brilliantly depicted in the old BBC series Yes Minister. A civil servant tells minister Jim Hacker that there is now a hospital that scores highly on all of the government’s criteria. Hygiene is unsurpassed, costs are minimal, planning is 100%.... The only problem is, there are no patients. Much can go wrong if governments and organizations translate their objectives into specific targets. The police are getting bogged down in meeting targets for the amount of arrests made, fines imposed or money collected. Too often, these targets become goals in themselves. This same complaint was voiced at the 2 March meeting by NGOS who feel confined by the ministry’s ‘logframes’, which make the internal process of directing and accounting for their efforts more important than addressing what is happening in the outside world. That is why Maarten Brouwer, the Dutch ambassador in Mali, called for a Theory of Change that focuses less rigidly on results. “We are not looking for the result,” said Brouwer, “but for a result.”

It is important to continually link goals with context. That is not only crucial for the way in which you give direction to your efforts, but also means that you can learn how to explain their results.

5. It calls for a culture change

Achieving all the above calls for a thorough change of culture and mentality in the organization. That is no easy task. Focusing more on meaningful results and thus on the continually changing context takes many years.  Professionals have to cut themselves loose from their own institutional interests and logic. Moreover, a whole generation of managers has been raised with the ideology of New Public Management in which – in an attempt to spend public funds as efficiently as possible – setting targets and accounting for results have been elevated to a great good. It is a hopeful sign that resistance to this ideology is growing, not only in the police and at the foreign ministry, but throughout the whole public and semi-public sector. Everyone is, however, doing that in their own way: it would be helpful if they were to take a look more often at how others are doing it.