Agency-based impact evaluation: learning from social innovation research

Chiappero, Enrica; von Jacobi, Nadia (2018). 'Agency-based impact evaluation: learning from social innovation research' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The concept of agency represents a distinctive trait of the capability approach and the human development literature (Sen, 1992, 1999). The importance to “put human agency (rather than organizations such as markets or governments) at the centre of the stage” (Drèze and Sen, 2002:6) is motivated by individual and societal reasons.  Indeed, the notion of agency is relevant at individual level, as it refers to the possibility for a person to do and achieve the goals and values he or she personally regards as valuable. Further, it is equally and intrinsically important for the society, as an agent who is actively involved and engaged can contribute to creating social change with wide-ranging positive effects. Therefore, the capability approach can potentially offer a multi-layered broad informational basis for evaluating interventions aimed to empower people and enhance societies such as social innovation initiatives.

Social innovation processes are thought to provide new solutions with an intrinsically unconstrained and transformative potential for societal change. Yet, it is still unclear how such change and transformative potential should be assessed. The measurement of impact of social innovation is still at a very early stage of its development and more efforts are needed in order to identify frameworks and methodologies that can allow in-depth assessment and comparison across different innovative experimentations. Such assessment is needed wherever social innovation is thought to serve as "laboratory" for policy-options that can eventually scale up and institutionalize such new solutions to social needs.

In this paper, we depart from a view on social innovation as tool of people's empowerment, and particularly for marginalised groups. Empowerment is intended as the ability of people to make a difference to the context they live in and to propose own ideals and ambitions as values to pursue in such context. Such view naturally leads us to focus on the notion of agency, which allows framing an evaluative space for impact analysis that goes beyond one-dimensional representations of expected outcomes (such as for example: having a job, or earning an income). By shifting the attention of the impact measurement from predefined outputs to people and to the process of empowerment itself, social innovation impact analysis can contribute to the understanding of increased public scrutiny, transparency, but also the emergence of shared values, visions and principles (Ferrero et al. 2014) which likely underpin successful social change (Pritchett, 2013). We therefore expect advancements in impact analysis that are based on capturing improvements in agency to represent a promising tool for the assessment of social innovation processes.

Drawing on the literature on intrinsic motivation and self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Ryan and Deci, 2000), we propose a methodological framework rooted in the capability approach and based on an adaptation of the Relative Autonomy Index in order to capture changes in autonomy of participants to social innovation experiences. We apply our conceptual and methodological framework to primary data collected on an Italian social innovation case, namely the Solidarity Purchasing Groups, which are collectives of consumers who engage in a political consumerism in which products enshrining environmental and solidarity values are preferred. These initiatives tend to support small farmers and provide a new alternative for access to healthy food. In our data analysis, we investigate:  a) whether farmers that are supplying such groups have experienced increases in autonomy - in comparison to a control group and b) to which extent active involvement and an increase in agency can translate into a significant request for social change, in terms of shared values, institutional trust, networking patterns and cognitive frames that seem to distinguish participants from their control group.

This paper contributes to the current literature by:

  1. Specifying the concept of empowerment and agency for disadvantaged groups through the identifications of relevant dimensions of agency and autonomy;

  2. Discussing the use of the capability approach as a potentially powerful tool for impact evaluation purposes enabling to account for diverse goals/dimensions and different contexts

  3. Suggesting a methodology based on a comparison between beneficiaries of a social innovation and their respective control groups - an approach so far not used within the capability literature;

  4. Providing new empirical evidence on how social innovation can contribute to enhance empowerment and to societal change through effects at multiple levels.

    Keywords: agency, empowerment, social innovation, impact evaluation

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