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Why Narrative Assessment?


Current monitoring and evaluation (M&E) methods primarily focus on results, but do not address the often-complex relations between results and efforts by ignoring the unfolding advocacy process in context and the knowledge of strategies in context employed by advocates. Rather than black-boxing the judgments and analyses behind strategies contributing to achievements and failures, in Narrative Assessment, the knowledge and skills of advocates as related by themselves forms the centre of attention.

Challenges with advocacy evaluation

Many organizations use advocacy to work towards a better society. However, monitoring, evaluating, and learning are notoriously difficult when it comes to advocacy. This results from characteristics of advocacy, and the context in which advocacy takes place. To be effective, advocates need to continuously navigate unpredictable and unknowable dynamics. Furthermore, causal relations between actions and results are hard to establish as, for example, influencing often takes place behind closed doors or can be risky to talk openly about it. Also, those targeted by advocacy often may not be ready to discuss being influenced by specific actors. Effects of interventions are but one among numerous other causal strands, making it hard to determine or claim their contribution. In addition, the targets of advocacy —policymakers, publics, private sector actors— are moving targets, continually acting on or reacting to various influences.

In practice and research, much of the difficulty of assessing advocacy results from the complexity of the change processes in which advocacy is involved , playing out simultaneously at different levels, and involve multiple actors, actions, and events. Therefore, it may be difficult to isolate evidence and interpret the contribution of outcomes to desired changes. In line with this, there is no generally agreed view on ‘what works when’ in advocacy.

Consequently, strategizing by advocates often is not based on sure-fire knowledge of cause and effect, but on practice-based knowledge and contextualized judgment of possibilities for change and strategies to influence targets in a given context and at a certain moment. Although much of these insights is tacit in nature, and remains hidden in results-oriented monitoring and evaluation, it is crucial to understanding and judging effective and successful advocacy work.

How stories can help

Stories are interpretations of human action in practical, concrete situations. They simultaneously function as explanation, justification, and instruction. A plausible story creates order and sense in a shifting, unpredictable and opaque environment. By making past actions understandable in this way, the stories create the conditions for further action. 

Stories are uniquely useful for reflecting on and assessing advocacy. By building stories, advocates can take along others on their journey, as key characters in a story that unfolds over time. Stories can cover all situations that advocates face, make sense of and navigate. Stories allow them to share their knowledge of the situation, of other story characters, the context involved, and of the transformation of which they were part and in which they had a role to play. These stories can be greatly varied. They can be about relations built over time, and how they made a difference. They may be about just one window of opportunity and how it was swiftly acted upon with great results. They can tell about the ways constricted political space for action hampered a program unexpectedly, or about the ways powerful adversaries acted against a program’s objectives, and how this was responded to. Importantly, in Narrative Assessment stories, disappointments and failures are not negatives one would rather hide; they form meaningful parts of the stories.

Furthermore, stories are useful for assessing advocacy because advocacy often seeks to advance change in situations that, from the program’s perspective, are an affront to moral principles of some sort (e.g., the right to clean water, to land, justice, basic human rights, or protection from violence). In addition, advocates appeal to a shared moral standpoint when they call out for support or make propositions about the worthiness of their efforts or the significance of their success. In such situations of assumed or observed moral affront that demands action, stories can convey the meaning of the work being done.

In addition, stories make available the lived experiences of advocacy staff, providing vibrant, multifaceted, and situational rendering of meaning. By relating a story to the program's Theory of Change, its meaning can be constituted in terms of what is relevant for wider audiences (colleagues, partners, communities, and donors).

A new way to be rigorous

A story is an account of what happened, idealizing and cleaning up, attributing causation, highlighting, and lowlighting. By idealizing and cleaning up, stories provide order, meaning and direction. However, idealizing and cleaning up may undermine credibility. Stories are easily criticized as subjective, and therefore seen as not meeting evaluation quality criteria.
Narrative Assessment offers a new direction for conceptualizing rigour, drawing on the well-established narrative inquiry research tradition. To counter the risks that an advocate glorifies his or her achievements, presenting and claiming successes, Narrative Assessment includes a critical examination of claims made in stories, to maximally develop the plausibility of stories. Plausibility is determined by the ‘verisimilitude’ of stories – their quality of being believable. Narrative Assessment stories therefore are co-constructed between the advocate and a trained Narrative Assessment facilitator who seeks detail, assesses consistency of statements, and makes sure it is clear how the story is embedded and makes sense in its context. In this way, Narrative Assessment facilitators test the believability of stories against alternative interpretations, gaps, or empty claims. As a result, Narrative Assessment stories are not just-so stories, but credible monitoring data.

The method is also different from other story-based methods in that it emphasizes the plausibility of stories. Plausibility is defined here as the quality of seeming likely to be true. Building and examining plausibility of stories is central to Narrative Assessment. To build plausibility, Narrative Assessment stories are co-constructed between the advocate as lead author and the Narrative Assessment facilitator in the role of critical friend. The facilitators are to seek detail, assessing consistency and plausibility of statements, embedding in context, clarification, and where possible, signs of evidence. In this way, Narrative Assessment facilitators test the believability of stories against alternative interpretations, undermining gaps, and apparently empty claims.

By creating stories in a way that makes them believable, and puts this believability to the test, Narrative Assessment seeks to comply with evaluative quality criteria emphasizing rigor. In this way, Narrative Assessment offers a new direction for conceptualizing rigor, drawing on the narrative inquiry research tradition.

This can help advocates build stories that inform and inspire peers while also seeking to be more acceptable and convincing to evaluators, donors, and other advocates than the more common ‘success stories,’ because of this rigor. This makes Narrative Assessment especially useful when objective evidence is hard or impossible to come by. This is often the case with advocacy.