To appreciate the reconciling potential that Critical Realism offers, we need to understand some of its technicalities. Like Complexity Theory, Critical Realism is borne out of numerous philosophies and shares some of its key ideas. The overlap between Critical Realism and Complexity Theory lies in the shared belief that social reality is: a) made-up of multiple, interdependent factors; b) ever-changing and adaptive, therefore not fully predictable; c) comprised of factors and circumstances that are subtle, poorly understood and unseen, which challenges our attempts to accurately measure the impact of public sector interventions.
However, some important differences exist between the two schools of thought. The salient difference lies in their locating of reality. Some Complexity Theorists are interpretivists who propose that social reality is subjective and only resides within an individual’s consciousness – there is no external reality. Critical Realists take an alternative view and argue that there is indeed an external, objective social reality, that is independent of human consciousness. They understand this reality to be concrete and structured by power and hierarchies created by social actors.
The flag flown by Critical Realists is the critical role of robust research in shedding light on the complex and adaptive social world public services are delivered in. Proponents argue for an ontological
, context-led approach to research and evaluation, which does not favour one research or data type over another. This is relevant because the well-known quantitative versus qualitative arguments that Positivists and Interpretivist often engage in loses footing in this interpretation of public service delivery.
Instead of making decisions about the quality or trustworthiness of one data or research type over another, Critical Realism asks, “what are the research methods that will most comprehensively answer questions about the effectiveness of this well-being intervention? What data will bring us as close as possible to the truth? What will render a fuller understanding of an objective reality that can be worked with and improved?”
. This ontologically-centred approach to data use and research in evaluation means all their forms have potential validity. Methods used are dictated by the type of insight needed to fully understand the impact of an intervention.
What are the implications for measuring well-being change?
Critical Realism’s advocacy for a practical, purely “needs-led” approach to evaluation has promising implications for our ability to measure and assess well-being progress in the Welsh public sector. To achieve the level of insight that allows us to both understand and track or quantify how public sector interventions contribute to the Welsh well-being story, Critical Realist Alex Clark says we need to ask “What works” and “For who”, “When”, “Why”, “How”,
and I would like to suggest we also ask the particulars of “Where”.
If public sector practitioners were to ask all these questions, they would be encouraged to use a more practical, ontological-lens to evaluation design. They would exhaust all the research and data options available, qualitative and quantitative, that could bring them as close as possible to deep and realistic answers. We would be left with both the contextual and deep insight called for by Complexity Theorists, and the factual “hard” information required in outcome-focused environments.
This varied data would not necessarily tell us the absolute and precise contribution an intervention has made to well-being. What it would offer is a fuller account of how an intervention interacts with communities’ well-being than we get when we have to make a decision between asking “What works” or “Why/How it works”.
The implications for influencing and controlling change
Critical Realist ideas still leave us with some questions about planning and change prediction. Increased insight and understanding of well-being does not automatically equate to a fully known reality, not when we are still faced with the unpredictable and latent nature of some of the factors that inhibit well-being. However, Critical Realism does provide a framework in which we can get as close as possible to understanding social contexts and therefore work with them in increasingly informed ways and begin the attempt to influence change.
Here is where journey planning tools such as Theories of Change
and Logic Models
can be employed to explore an intervention’s potentials and the challenges presented by the landscapes in which they are delivered. We can apply the “What, Who, When, Why, How”, and “Where” questions to our journey plan. We can also make use of a journey plan’s goal setting function by using it to imagine the potential success of our intervention on well-being. Instead of the current public sector model which uses journey plans to predict and assess change, journey planning can be employed to:
- Visualise and imagine how change can happen
- Explore and test how change happens
Combining these two purposes of a journey plan may bring us closer to influencing well-being because we will be seeking to bring about change through public sector efforts, while being simultaneously inquisitive about the factors outside its control that affect change. This increasingly informed working could result in increasingly effective well-being delivery.
We could achieve this deeper understanding by approaching journey planning in a more iterative way than we do currently. We could put forward draft logic models and change narratives prior to implementing a well-being intervention and ask the important “What, Who, Why, How, and Where” evaluation questions during delivery. We could then develop increasingly refined versions of these change narratives until we get as close as possible to the ‘realness’ of what works and why, including all the external contributors to well-being that we would have discovered during our earlier evaluation exercises. This real time approach would result in public sector practitioners undertaking a journey that discovers the potentials and challenges of an intervention as it is happening.
The question I asked in my first post was how public sector practitioners can credibly measure and influence well-being change. Critical Realism offers a paradigm in which we can understand change, get closer to assessing and measuring it and begin to influence it. Critical Realism does not provide a formula to definitive prediction. However, instead of the public sector being asked to passively “wait” and “see” how well-being plays out in Welsh communities, it provides a platform to: better understand what change happens, how and why; and use this insight to influence progress by working in more informed ways. Having these aims when approaching evaluation will call for shift in the Welsh public sector delivery mindset: we will need to accept that we will always be learning while delivering and measuring change, that we are not delivery experts, but always hoping to get better at improving well-being.
Author Bio: Leanne is a social researcher at Data Cymru where her role is to spotlight effective public engagement and social research within public service delivery. She is currently specialising in evaluation and journey planning and is managing a number of client projects. Leanne has a background in community development and co-production and has focused her qualitative research skills in voluntary and public service environments. Leanne has an MSc in Research Methods and Education from Cardiff University, and has an academic and work history in equality and diversity. She is also a qualified Career coach and Adult Educator.