ChangeFest 2021

An invitation to deepen place-based approaches

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we met for ChangeFest, the Larrakia People, and pay respect to Elders past, present, and emerging. Thank you to the Larrakia Elders, hosts, and community, for the generous welcome and for sharing your rich insights and experience.

During 8th – 11th June, hundreds of place-based change-makers met on Larrakia country for ChangeFest 2021 in Darwin. The national gathering has been happening since 2018 and its focus on First Nations inclusion and leadership was strong. Participating were community-led collaborations, service providers, project teams, networks, activists, government partners and policy makers, sponsors, community members, designers, and evaluators interested in improving social outcomes for Australian communities.

Key take-homes to deepen practice

Inspiring examples of local and systems led change were shared, as well as lessons and stories of trauma and inequity. By design, and through this sharing, I left with a take-home pack of timely questions that will help me deepen my place-based practice.

  • First, ChangeFest asked me to reflect on how I can more fully and proactively bring The Uluru Statement from the Heart to life in my work and partnerships.
  • Second, I was asked to explore how I show up in collaborations (the ‘dance’ we do with others in the system), and look behind the curtain at how and why I might step back from collaborating when things get challenging (check out Deep Collaboration).
  • Third La Boite Theatre asked: What commitments can I make to include young people and what commitments will I take back to them?

The first one is particularly important – it will take me beyond endorsing and sharing the statement to deeply engaging with it in conversation with others and using it as a compass for my practice.

Enablers and barriers of place-based approaches

As an evaluator specialising in systems change and place-based approaches, I am always interested in hearing insights about what’s helping support systems change and what’s getting in the way when it comes to community-led change and assessing progress and social impact.

A few of the resounding enablers for place-based change included:

  • Importance of building respectful and trusted relationships and networks, and then embedding these so collaboration goes beyond only relationships.
  • Keeping community voice at the forefront and listening deeply to community.
  • Connecting people and efforts across the ‘system’.
  • Drawing on/ using Indigenous ways of working to keep culture at the centre of practice for First Nations communities. One wonderful example was from Galiwin’ku Connected Beginnings who are using local Yolŋu metaphors, language, and their kinship model as the central framework for their collective practice and measurement, evaluation and learning.
  • Using data and stories to demonstrate change, build momentum, and celebrate the wins (see Clear Horizon’s resources page for tools to help with this).

On the flipside, some of the ongoing challenges expressed by change-makers included lack of trust between partners and community, the impact of trauma on individuals, communities, and intergenerationally, lack of communication, duplication and fragmented efforts across systems, and the ongoing work of power sharing to enable communities to have greater control and self-determination.

These themes certainly fit with what we see through our work with change-makers in place-based contexts. And never too far away were the much-asked questions ‘How do we know if we are on track given all this complexity?’ or ‘Are we making a difference for kids and families?’

For my own practice, knowing if we are making a difference requires the short and messy loops of learning about what’s working in place, the shifts happening in the way people collaborate and put equity for First Nations peoples at the centre, and tracking how our mindsets and practice affects collectively driven change. Simultaneously, robust ways of checking impact over the long term are needed to show the contribution of our place-based work in improving the experience and lives of local communities. This requires looking at the numbers and stories that matter for community and partners and acknowledging there will be diverse perspectives on what counts as evidence and that specific outcome areas we might be seeking to improve such as ‘health’, ‘education’ or ‘identity and culture’ are all interconnected in the bigger story of social change.

Thanks to all the change-makers and ChangeFest organisers for getting us together to deepen our place-based work. It was a rich week of connecting and learning.

Hero image: The Change-makers of ChangeFest

Image above: Opening ceremony and Welcome to Country with Aunty June and Larrakia community

Images courtesy of ChangeFest organisers 2021



Challenges in MEL: Valuing Women’s Voices and Experiences

I won’t lie – it’s been difficult to feel positive about the gains we’ve made towards a more equal society this International Women’s Day. There are the regressive effects of the global pandemic, which have seen women disproportionately lose paid work while their childcare and home responsibilities have sky-rocketed as schools locked-down. And in Australia, we’ve also spent a dispiriting few weeks watching our political leaders systemically fail to listen to and value the experiences of women.

So I’m taking this opportunity to practice something we learned to do in 2020 – taking time out to reflect on the positives and the things we can control – how we can ensure that in our world of MEL (Measurement, Evaluation and Learning), the voices and experiences of women are being heard and acted upon.

Using Shawna Wakefield and Daniela Koerppen’s excellent 2017 paper as a guide, Applying Feminist Principles to Program Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning, I can proudly say that our approach is fundamentally feminist.

As a matter of course, Clear Horizon promotes genuine participation, uses participatory techniques and fosters co-ownership throughout the MEL process. We recognise that evaluation is political, and that it has the power to influence significant change. As MEL practitioners, we need to be aware of the both the impact and biases we can bring to our MEL work and the broader social impact space. According to Wakefield and Koerppen, a feminist approach involves “self-awareness and potential biases of the professionals and institutions involved; looking at the importance of trust, time and resources to develop both the [MEL] processes and the capacities required to undertake them, and last but not least, accountability and continuous learning.”

For us, this means interrogating the gendered nature of our MEL framing, the way we do our questioning, analysis and reporting, and being on the lookout to ensure that any structural inequities of gender imbalances are not further entrenched by the act of evaluation. A good example of applying feminist thinking in MEL is when we are developing indictors for our measurement systems. As evaluators, we need to be aware of the choices and decisions that we make, considering how these are “inevitably shaped by the gender and power dynamics in a given context”.

For example, often when reporting on educational outcomes, the default is to look at measures such as the proportion of students who successfully completed learning. Which might paint a very different picture than if we were to look at the proportion of girls versus the proportion of boys successfully completing their learning. Or if we were to look at the types of subjects completed by gender, and whether the typecasts of STEM  subjects for boys and “softer” topics for girls are still being played out with very real impacts on future career choices and outcomes. Using measures disaggregated by gender, for example, can provide deeper insights into the differing experiences and opportunities afforded to girls and women.

I was also immensely pleased to see one of our flagship techniques, Most Significant Change (MSC), recognised as a methodology with the potential to challenge inequalities and influence gender relations when supported by appropriate MEL systems. Clear Horizon often draws on MSC as a qualitative evaluation tool, largely due to its participatory, inclusive and empowering approach, ensuring the voices of the most disadvantaged can be given equal weight and providing space to interrogate any programmatic changes realised beyond the knowledge or lived experience of those developing the metrics of impact. It also values listening and story-telling qualities, and offers the ability to influence change through learning.

And while the above gives me hope in terms of our practices – while not perfect – being a good model for listening to and valuing the experiences of women, we’ve still got a lot a work to do to support feminist MEL approaches in the broader social impact space. Just as well we’re up for the challenge.


People, ping pong and healthier lunches – what we’re looking forward to in 2021

For many of us, the start of 2021 has felt very much the same as the last few months of 2020: there’s still much uncertainty and many things put on hold as we wait for a global vaccination roll-out.

In the interim, we thought we’d put into practice one of the lessons learnt from 2020 – time for reflection and focusing on the small, good things to get us through. So we asked the Clear Horizon team what learnings from 2020 they’ll be bringing into the new year, what they’re looking forward to.

“Spending time together face to face in our new office. Our end of year get-together was so fantastic, and while we have come to love many aspects of virtual meetings, and have honed our online facilitation, it was a reminder that it can be surprisingly lovely to meet in person. So now comes the year where we perfect the hybrid model?”
– Jess Dart, Founding Director, Health Futures Lead

“I’m looking forward to graduating and finishing my studies this year. I’m also looking forward to going back into the office and seeing everyone again and getting back in the routine of exercising as well as our epic ping pong battles at lunch.”
– Kim Saldago, BI Developer

“It feels like last year pushed us 10 years into the future. We’ve all be dragged (some kicking and screaming) into online learning. Many of us have experienced how great it can be when done well and how truly awful it is when done poorly (somehow worse than my first year chemistry lecturer who scrawled illegibly on a blackboard with his back to the room mumbling to himself). So this year, I’m excited about continuing to explore how to design and deliver truly engaging participatory online learning experiences that surpass face-to-face learning – yes, it’s possible!”
– Cam Elliott, Head of the Clear Horizon Academy

“When we began working remotely, we decided to start each day with a 15 minute team check-in – who’s doing what, who needs help with what. We found it so valuable that we’re keeping this habit, despite returning to a physical office. It’s made us more attuned to what’s going on for each of us, each day, and helps us better share the load in terms of our team’s work.”
– Lee-Anne Molony, Director

“I am looking forward to the new normal of being back in the office a few days a week and working alongside colleagues but also keeping up the exercise and (the more healthier!) eating habits I established whilst working from home.”
– Jenny Riley, Chief Digital & Data Officer

What it takes to build a Liveable Company

If this year has proven anything, it’s that we are capable of change and of rising to new challenges. In that spirit, we’re challenging ourselves to better walk the talk and build a liveable company. But what does that mean?

Clear Horizon looks to Health Futures

How COVID-19 is forcing a re-examination of systemic injustices, and why we’ve created Health Futures to help social impact initiatives adapt.

With the onset of COVID-19, health has been spurred into public consciousness. Many of us have been subjected to the clinical and infection-control aspects of the disaster response: social distancing, masks, drive-through testing. But we’re also now made keenly aware of the complexities of public health, the way it overlaps sectors, and the way the pandemic is exacerbating many of the issues that social impact programs are already grappling to address.

For one, COVID-19 has brought home the importance of cultivating wellbeing – not just preventing illness – and the ways in which wellbeing is facilitated by social connection, stable income, and access to green space, among many other factors.

In addition, policy discussions surrounding the pandemic in Australia have surfaced the many pre-existing systemic inequities that also manifest as health inequities. We’re seeing renewed debate about an increasingly casualised workforce without sick leave, the privatisation and deregulation of aged care, the inadequacy of social benefits, the detention of people seeking asylum (and lack of a safety net for those living in the community), the cramped and inhospitable conditions of public housing, the difficulties facing those fleeing domestic violence, not to mention the widespread chronic illness (and other structural violence) experienced by First Nations peoples. The fact that health is also a justice issue has never been more apparent.

The social distancing requirements of the pandemic response have also accelerated the development and growth of digital health products and telehealth services. These initiatives are not just continuing to provide the same services in a different medium, but many are also taking advantage of their format to reach groups that previously may have been excluded (such as people in regional areas) and to intervene in new and creative ways. Many of these digital programs support behaviour change or provide resources, particularly in the areas of mental health, chronic and lifestyle diseases, substance addictions and diagnosis/screening.

Clear Horizon is responding to the emerging needs and opportunities in the social change sector through the creation of a dedicated Health Futures team specialising in innovative health and wellbeing initiatives. The new business group will focus on mental health promotion; chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke and obesity; substance addictions; domestic violence; and health systems intersections, for example connecting people to disability support services. We’re most keen to assist both domestic and international initiatives that are community-led, have a digital component, involve developmental evaluation, take a systems approach to change, and/or involve innovative health service designs and integration.

Our approach will be to tackle problems holistically, offering cross-sectoral expertise and a solid grounding in systems thinking. This enables us to better draw links between apparently unrelated processes or concepts, as well as to consider the effect of context on an initiative and how it might interact with broader systems. And as the demand for digital health initiatives continues to grow as part of the “new normal”, we’ll be drawing on our Digital team’s expertise to support the technical intricacies of developing and testing digital health products, as well as their privacy and data storage implications. This is a crucial consideration for confidential health data.

We’ve already had the opportunity to work on some cutting-edge projects in the health and wellbeing space. One of our long-term partnerships, with the Fay Fuller Foundation and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, involves developmental evaluation services for Our Town, which is a twelve-year initiative that takes a community-led approach to addressing mental health and wellbeing. These meaningful, strategic partnerships are where we believe we can achieve the best health and wellbeing outcomes for people and communities, and the organisations looking to support them.

The Health Futures team is led by Dr Jess Dart (Founding Director), and our members are Samiha Barkat (Principal Consultant), Edgar Daly (Senior Consultant) and Alessandra Prunotto (Consultant). To find out more about our services and training, please get in touch.

The Cook and the Chef – How Designers & Evaluators can Collaborate or Clash in the Kitchen

What happens when Designers and Evaluators start cooking up social innovations together? Is it a case of the Cook and the Chef, where there’s collaboration throughout, or is it more My Kitchen Rules, with paring knives out? Here are four kitchen scenarios we’ve observed – but we want to know: which kitchen are you cooking in?

Part 2 – Jazz Players of the Evaluation World: Meet our experts on Systems-Change and Place-Based Approaches.

In this article, we ask Dr Jess Dart, Anna Powell and Dr Ellise Barkley about their top tips for overcoming some of the key challenges of evaluating systems change and place-based approaches, and how to get everyone on the same songsheet.

The Jazz Players of the Evaluation World: Meet our experts on Systems-Change and Place-Based Approaches.

A conversation with Dr Jess Dart, Anna Powell and Dr Ellise Barkley about the challenges and opportunities presented by systems change and place-based approaches, and why evaluators in the space are truly the jazz players of the evaluation world.

Developing a Theory of Change – is there a ‘right’ way?

Considered by many change-makers as the ultimate ‘road map’ when it comes to creating social impact, a good Theory of Change is an integral part of any intervention or initiative aiming to affect change. We asked experts from different fields about the approaches they use and uncovered some significant differences, which begged the question – is there a right way to develop a theory of change?

Changing self and system in COVID-19

This article was written by Anna Powell and Alessandra Prunotto

How do you change a system that is in a state of flux – and at times, in chaos?

The systems change initiatives we support at Clear Horizon are now tackling this question. Before COVID-19, the typical patterns of systems were very difficult to shift – in many respects, the systems we live and work in here in Australia have been built over more than 200 years. Now, they move like quicksilver.

The pandemic has required systems change-makers to reorient themselves in systems that are in flux. Change-makers are working out new opportunities and leverage points to affect positive change now. (Let’s not waste a good crisis.)

Of the many potential systems levers in this context, one meaningful area to focus on can be how you yourself show up in the system. While systems change leaders do this all the time, during a time of heightened instability working on yourself helps keeps you anchored to purpose and hold steady through the state of flux. Developmental evaluators can play a crucial role in supporting this reflective and action-orientated process.

You are the system

According to The Water of Systems Change by Kania, Kramer and Senge (2018), systems change requires change-makers to identify the intangible aspects of a system, including relationships, power distribution, institutional norms and constraints, attitudes, and assumptions.

One of these intangibles is mental models, a powerful lever for shifting the conditions holding a system in place. Mental models are ‘Habits of thought—deeply held beliefs and assumptions and taken-for-granted ways of operating that influence how we think, what we do, and how we talk (Kania, Kramer & Senge 2018).

Deeply implicit, mental models are tricky to identify, especially in yourself and those like you. They are also confronting to challenge, because you have to question the power structures that have shaped these mental models – often structures you have benefited from in some way.

But it has to happen. Systems change is ultimately change in people. Mental models are held by individuals, and individuals are fractals of a system. Learning and change on a personal and team level is a part of systems change.

Triple-loop learning for self-reflection

Reflection can be uncomfortable. In a group setting, it needs high levels of vulnerability and trust. This process can be softened by a neutral developmental evaluator playing the role of ‘curious’ friend – someone close enough to create a sense of warmth, but far back enough to identify cognitive dissonance.

These difficult reflections need to be systematic and driven by pertinent questions. Mark Cabaj’s paper Evaluating Systems Change Results introduces a concept called ‘triple-loop learning’ that we’ve found useful to be more deliberate when reflecting on the self in the system.

In our previous blog post, we explained how single and double loops of learning are useful for strategic learning in emergent contexts. Cabaj explains that while these loops deal respectively with learning about what we are doing (implementation) and what we are thinking (strategy/context), triple-loop learning deals with how we are being. It directs us to ask questions about our emotional triggers, our habitual responses, our social norms/dynamics and our individual and shared values and narratives.

Brave government: triple-loop learning in action

The value of this triple-loop learning was highlighted through our work in supporting a government client with their efforts to change the way they work with communities. They were aiming to shift an entrenched power dynamic in how government works with communities and transform ways of working within their own offices.

As our staff built a trusting relationship with this government team, we together identified their positioning of power and authority as a key systems lever. Before COVID-19, we began to help facilitate these reflections on how they were stepping into their power, moving more into the tricky space of personal and team adaptive work. Seeing senior officials confronting their own discomfort was a testament to their commitment to change.

The team identified that their adaptive work and reflection meant that they would be able to take forward new ways of being and working wherever they went in government. By starting to build a tolerance of the discomfort needed to learn and change, they were modelling the learning culture they wanted to see across government. They were moving towards a new mode of ‘being’ in a system that they could take with them no matter which department they found themselves in. A systematic triple-loop reflection process was key to identifying these valuable, yet intangible, moves toward meaningful change.