Tag Archives: impact evaluation

Campaigning and framing

There is an array of problem-solving approaches, frameworks and campaigning tools that may be useful in the community law space. While in London (and yes, this post is a short return to the UK) I had the pleasure of being introduced to many of these by the very knowledgeable Dan Vockins, Lead Organiser at the New Economics Foundation (NEF). Dan works primarily on the New Economic Organisers Network (NEON), which is “a network of individuals across grassroots groups, trade unions, faith groups, NGOs, politics and the media working to replace neoliberalism with an ecimageonomics of the common good. By connecting individuals and building their economics knowledge and organising capacity, NEON catalyses joined-up campaigns that tackle the economic root causes of social and environmental problems.” You can apply to become a member of NEON here.

Dan referred me to three pieces of work that will be of interest to many social change organisations:

  • Looking to reframe an issue but not sure where to start? The NEF guide “Framing the economy: the austerity story” is a wonderfully succinct reading of how the economy is framed in the UK, what alternatives there may be to that narrative, and suggestions on how to deploy these.
  • Want to build networks and promote creative problem solving on an issue? Consider using an action learning methodology. Action learning aims to promote open consideration of complex problems within a group through a process of curious questioning and reflection. It is intended to facilitate participants’ understanding of both their areas of knowledge and ignorance. Action learning often involves a structured group discussion among peers, in which the group works through a problem of one participant at a time. For guides on the practice of action learning, see here and here.
  • Why is it that a legal strategy is effective to address one particular issue, but not another? One approach may be to step back and map the system you are working within, including the relevant  players, power structures, and their interests and values in relation to a particular issue. From there, it may be easier to consider at what intervention point, or leverage point, a strategy operates. It may be that your strategy is directed at an issue but does not effectively respond to particular public values that validate an unjust policy, for example. Relevant tools in relation to this are the Common Cause discussion on values, and Donella Meadows’s work on systems analysis and leverage points.

Dan also offered the following useful words of advice:

  • Relationships precede action. Consider forming relationships to enable you to respond more effectively in coalition when crises arise.
  • Consider values. Consider whether the way you campaign, and tell stories through advocacy work, is exercising the values that ultimately reinforce your centre’s overall objective and vision of justice.

Values are like muscles. The more society exercises a particular value, the stronger it is.”

  • Be clear about your target audience. If possible, continually test your messaging on focus groups.
  • Don’t try and do too much at once. Consider the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This Manifesto provides, in short, that you create the minimum structure for a program (or campaign), test it, and, only once it has been shown to be useful and operational, build upon it in collaboration with users. This ensures that the program is most tailored for, and responsive to, users’ needs.
  • Don’t be afraid to iterate. Build time in for evaluation, and through that, for fine-tuning a campaign.

I had two further thought-provoking encounters, a little outside of the legal space, while in London. Firstly, I met with Susie Steed, who is currently completing her PhD on performance measurement in the not-for-profit sector (and who previously worked as an economist for the NEF). I asked Susie about her views on the use of Social Return on Investment (SROI) evaluation for community lawyering, and left with the impression that SROI may be more resource-intensive and bureacratic than useful in this context. Rather, she drew my attention to other evaluation possibilities. Our conversation touched on John Seddon‘s systems thinking, a method by which service delivery is analysed, and evaluated, as a “flow” system rather than in terms of measurable outcomes. We also discussed Daniel Kaheman‘s holistic idea of wellbeing, through which he argues that wellbeing cannot be understood by way of a single measurement.

I also very briefly met Luke Bacon, who works with the Open Australia Foundation, a civic-tech organisation that tracks and makes accessible the parliamentary voting patterns of members of Parliament. Luke is also co-founder of Detention Logs, which publishes data, documents and investigations about Australia’s immigration detention network. Civic-tech is a space that may have great potential for better connecting the community law sector with its target client groups.

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A conversation with Scott Cummings

Cummings book coverOn a short trip to sunny Los Angeles, and a moment of respite from the chill of New York, I took the opportunity to visit an academic I had long admired from a distance: Scott Cummings. Scott is Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), faculty director of the UCLA David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy, and author of numerous key texts on public interest law (some of which I refer to in this literature review post below). Our discussion traversed over the following two particularly interesting controversies.

Reframing, and other lessons from the conservative legal movement. One fascinating element of the US legal landscape is the conservative legal movement. In response to a question about what progressive public interest lawyers could learn from the conservatives, one key point that Scott raised was that of (re)framing. He noted:

“In the last 25 years or so….and this is not specific to legalism, but there is a dimension that you can see in the legal movements…generally, [the conservatives] have been more effective in framing what they are doing in ways that resonate better with contemporary American values. That matters profoundly, because much of [public interest law work] is about persuading people of the justice of your cause…. There is something about positioning their work within the dominant narrative of social justice in the United States that the conservatives have managed to do really well.”

Despite Australia’s lack of an equivalent conservative legal movement, this point is, in my view, equally relevant in Australia, particularly in areas such as refugee and environmental law.

By way of example, Scott discussed how since the 1970s the conservative legal movement has ceased to align itself overtly with business interests, and moved instead toward furthering a deregulatory political agenda through litigation framed through a libertarian or civil rights lens. This includes, for example, the use of litigants toward whom the political left are sympathetic, such as people of colour working toward economic development. For further reading on the conservative legal movement see Steven Teles’s highly-regarded book “The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law“, and the writing of Ann Southworth.

Scott also discussed the way in which the pro-gun lobby had sponsored academics to prepare legal theories and constitutional law arguments that could be deployed before the US Supreme Court, at just the right time, to dramatically expand the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The case in point here is District of Columbia et al v Heller (2008), in which the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) upheld the individual’s right to keep a firearm in the home for self-defence, and so significantly limited the states’ ability to introduce (or retain) greater gun controls. For more on this case and the history of the US pro-gun movement generally, see Adam Winkler’s book “Gunfight“.

How do we evaluate strategic legal work meaningfully?

IMG_3814In discussing what opportunities there are for meaningful evaluation of the impact of public interest law work, Scott helpfully challenged me to define with greater precision what exactly it is that I am concerned with measuring. What kind of cases should we, or do we want to, measure? And why? He also raised the question of scale: at what point in time do we elect to measure impact? Over what length of time? It might be necessary to look at the historical perspective for meaningful data where measuring the impact of litigation as part of a long-term social change campaign, for example that in relation to same sex marriage.

However, in other cases, it may be sufficient to look at the outcome of the litigation alone, or to add only necessary, deliberate layers of further evaluation to this. For example: what level of compliance is there to the court decision by lower courts? And/or what level of compliance is there by relevant administrative agencies? At other points, it may be sufficient, in turn, to record impact only by way of a descriptive case study, or to use simple metrics where this is meaningful. The depth of evaluation will depend on your objectives in the evaluation exercise as well as, obviously, available resources. This was a useful reminder to avoid the temptation of the “one size fits all” solution to a complex question.


(1) Cover of Alan Chen & Scott Cummings, Public Interest Lawyering: a Contemporary Perspective (2014).

(2) Close up of Shoot the Coin by Mark Bradford (2013) exhibited in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibit titled Variations: Conversations in & Around Abstract Painting.

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