Transforming Knowledge into Change

A Practical Guide to Evaluating Systems Change in a Human Services System Context

This Guide is for evaluators who would like a practical “way in” to thinking about systems and systems
change. The key practical step the Guide takes is to limit the type of system to be evaluated to a
particular type of system (a type that systems change initiatives often target): a human services
delivery system (e.g. health, education, workforce development, etc.). Definitions of “system” are
general and abstract because they encompass all system types – a cell, a body, a family, an
organization, a weather system. Once we limit ourselves to human service delivery systems, we are
allowed to adopt much more specific, concrete concepts.
This Guide – while taking a pragmatic approach – does not ignore the complexity of systems change.
For an evaluator, complexity often manifests as shifting (and unpredictable) contexts, deep
differences among perspectives, and even conflict among stakeholders. An excellent way for an
evaluator to take this type of complexity into account is to adopt a developmental evaluation
approach, working shoulder-to-shoulder with systems change agents to support their ongoing
learning and initiative implementation.
Ultimately, the Guide proposes that we can tackle complexity by staying grounded in straightforward
and familiar concepts – while at the same time respecting the complex nature of systems change. To
help evaluators walk this fine line, the Guide offers:
• A concrete way to operationalize the concept of systems (with a focus on human service delivery
• A correspondingly concrete way to visualize what it means to say that the system is changing,
• A way to think about the factors contributing to the effectiveness of the collaboratives that
undertake systems change initiatives,
• A list of the steps involved in systems change evaluation (likening this evaluation to standard
change-over-time program evaluation),
• A set of tools for you to tailor and use in your own evaluation, and
• Guidance for how to bring together this approach with some key aspects of a developmental


Bibliographic Details
Author Nancy Latham
Publisher Center for Evaluation Innovation; Learning for Action
Publication Date January 1, 2015
Publication City
Publication Work
Resource Type
Resource Focus
Submitted to Point K January 26, 2015 - 4:07pm

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