The research and evaluation team at Development Works Changemakers (DWC) often finds that organisations whose projects and programmes we are evaluating struggle with the fact that they have had to change their projects and have not been able to implement exactly what was originally planned.
Of course, it is very important to plan projects soundly and to develop realistic theories of change and action from the outset. This ensures we clearly map out all assumptions, inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts. Also included are the linkages between these. Quite often, organisations working in the social and human development sector initiate projects without properly planning and theorising in this rigorous way. This can cause them problems later on. Not only in proving their impact, but also in achieving their goals.
Project fidelity refers to the extent to which a programme is implemented as it was intended by those who designed the intervention. It is important. The chances of maintaining fidelity can be improved by ensuring that programme implementers first and foremost themselves understand clearly what they intend to do and how they intend to do it. This is not always the case. Many smaller projects develop more organically and with more “heart” than “head” at the outset. Yet funders still want to know how their money is being spent. They also want to know what the impact of their investment has been.
Nevertheless, it is also true that even with good planning and theorising, effective implementation of an intervention is best understood as a careful balance between fidelity and adaptability. Adaptability refers to the extent to which implementation is adjusted to the context and conditions in which it is operating. A balance between these two facets increases the likelihood that a programme will achieve its intended outcomes.
In fact, some studies indicate that programmes that frequently produce the most effective results are those that encourage rather than deter needed adaptations1 and that such adaptability enhances project sustainability and long-lasting impact2.
Thus, although greater adaptability undermines implementation fidelity, it is not always as bad as it may seem. Especially if such adaptations can be managed. For example, by trying to ensure that core programme features are implemented with fidelity. Less essential features are then adapted to achieve the best ecological fit3.
Importance of programme adaptability
The evidence on adaptability emphasises that contextual factors are an important consideration for effective programme implementation. According to Durlak and DuPre’s (2008) review of over 500 quantitative studies looking at the impact of implementation on programme outcomes and what factors affect implementation, there is strong empirical evidence to show that various contextual factors influence programme implementation.
These include community-level factors (including politics, sociocultural factors, policy and funding); implementer and service provider characteristics (including capacity, leadership, staffing, support systems); and characteristics of innovation (compatibility of the programme to the given context and the adaptability of the programme to fit provider preferences, community needs, values, cultural norms etc.).
A case study of programme adaptability
A recent programme design and implementation evaluation conducted by DWC illustrates the above situation well. The programme was implemented in a very complex and fluid township context, among young people. It was initially planned to provide skills training sessions and other activities over the course of a year to fixed groups of recent school-leavers.
The programme made use of a high-tech biometric system to manage the registration, recruitment and other aspects of the intervention. However, the implementers soon found that in almost every aspect of the programme they needed to adapt their approach to the local context and needs of the young people.
The initial beneficiary recruitment approach did not work and had to be fundamentally adapted. It was also found that high numbers of young people were dropping out of the year-long programme. This was due to their once-monthly sessions in a fixed group did not suit their needs. Instead, many would leave the area or find a job and not complete.
The programme thus changed to be run weekly over a 12 week period, which was much more successful. The biometric system also needed a lot of development over the period of implementation. Despite all these adaptations and challenges, by the end of the programme period (three years), the programme had evolved an approach which worked and was effective.
Despite concerns from funders that the original project plans and protocols had not been followed, it was apparent that adaptability was required and that the lessons learned in this programme could inform similar interventions in future.
However, another recent evaluation conducted by DWC has underlined the importance of properly documenting and dating changes and adaptations along the way. This ensures that the correct procedures are followed throughout. In the classic project management approach, this kind of process would be expected. There would be consequences if the process was not followed. However, it is too often the case in social programmes that implementers are not always adequately disciplined in this regard. This makes it very difficult for evaluators trying to assess the project in an open and accountable way.
DWC has evaluated several programmes where similar dynamics have been apparent. While we have tried to assist implementers to ensure sound planning and fidelity. For example, through theory of change workshops. We have also helped implementers and funders to understand that if managed effectively, adaptability can also be a key contributor to programme success and sustainability.
Written by Andrew Hartnack
1Forehand, R., Dorsey, S., Jones, D. J., Long, N., & McMahon, R. J. (2010). “Adherence and flexibility: They can (and do) coexist!” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 17, 258-264.)
2Ghate, D. (2016). ”From programs to systems: Deploying implementation science and practice for sustained real world effectiveness in services for children and families.” Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 45(6), 812-826.
3Durlak, J. A., & DuPre, E. P. (2008). “Implementation matters: A review of research on the influence of implementation on program outcomes and the factors affecting implementation.” American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 327-350.; Ghate (2016)