A program logic is a tool for planning, implementing and evaluating a program, research project or strategy. Other terms that are commonly used to describe program logic include theory of change and program theory.
Designing a program of work demands answers to some difficult questions:
- What problem(s) are we attempting to address? Why should we intervene?
- What difference are we ultimately trying to achieve?
- Given this, what specific changes do we need to see? (and for whom, and when?)
- What activities do we think will achieve these outcomes? Why and how?
- What resources do we need to implement our activities?
- And, importantly, how will we measure our progress?
Program logic prompts answers to these questions, and helps us boil a program down to its essence. It outlines how an initiative is thought to work and its intended impact.
A program logic is typically displayed in a diagram that shows the relationships between key components (inputs and activities) and their expected effects (outputs, outcomes and impact).
Program logic is a useful planning tool as it prompts us to begin with the end in mind and the impact we are aiming to achieve in the short-, medium- and longer-term. Program logic encourages critical reflection on what we are trying to achieve, for whom, and how change is expected to occur, and informs the selection of appropriate strategies and activities. Program logic summarises the main elements of a program, and how what we intend to do (activities) and what we intend to produce (outputs) link to anticipated change, or impact.
Program logic helps us to plan, monitor evaluate and report on our efforts by providing a roadmap for monitoring progress, making it easier to identify evaluation questions.
A program logic is a living document, and should be reviewed regularly to ensure it remains an accurate representation of the program, or if it needs to be adapted.
There is no one correct way to develop a program logic. Options include a group workshop, interviews or using existing research, evaluation and change theories to inform your program logic.
The development of a program logic generally follows the sequence outlined here:
1. Problem statement
Develop your problem statement: this is the issue or problem that your program is going to address. Your problem statement should be targeted and specific.
Questions to consider are:
- What is the problem your research or program addresses?
- What is the known burden of the problem?
- What will happen if nothing is done to address the problem?
- What are the causes of the problem? What are the causes of these causes?
- Who is affected by this problem?
- Who is involved in this problem? Who else is working on it and who cares if it is solved?
- What do we know about the problem from research, evidence and experience?
2. Long-term outcomes
The long-term outcomes should resolve the issue identified in your problem statement – this is the overall change, or desired impact. Long-term outcomes generally take a considerable amount of time to achieve (ten years or longer) and will be influenced by a range of factors beyond your control.
3. Short-term outcomes
Short-term outcomes are the changes you expect to see as a direct consequence of your project or program. These are the easiest to measure, and the timeframe will usually be the length of your program. Short-term outcomes are typically changes in knowledge and skills.
4. Medium-term outcomes
Medium-term outcomes are what you would expect to follow from the short-term outcomes you have identified. For example, if you have identified an increase in knowledge as a short-term outcome, the medium-term outcome is likely to be the application of that knowledge and a change in behaviour.
Inputs are the resources required to address the problem identified in your problem statement. It is useful to identify both the material resources (e.g. funding, physical spaces) and the non-material resources (e.g. skills and expertise) you require.
Activities are the actions undertaken in your project or program. These can include engaging with consumers and end-users of research, conducting research, running programs, collaborating with partners, and training students and staff.
Outputs are the products or services that result from your inputs and activities. These can include publications, reports, presentations, new IP and knowledge translation materials.
Making assumptions explicit is an important part of program logic. Assumptions are the beliefs we have about our program, the people involved, and how it will work. Are we correct in assuming that if we do one thing it will lead to another? What evidence are we drawing upon? Unexamined assumptions are a big risk to program success. Shakman and Rodruiqez (2015) suggest asking "what is known, and what is being assumed?" It is worth spending some time on this section, and asking a range of people involved in the program to help you identify a full list of assumptions so you can address them.
9. External factors
Consider the environment in which your program is taking place. Economic, political, cultural, historical and social contexts will influence the way your program evolves and the outcomes that you can achieve.
Where is the “logic” here?
The logic underpinning a program logic is an “if, then” logic: if we have these inputs, then we will be able to deliver these activities. If we have these inputs, and if we deliver these activities, then we will produce these outputs. Importantly, if we have these inputs, if we deliver these activities and if we produce these outputs, we will then see these short, medium and longer-term outcomes.
Where is impact in our program logic?
The impact part of the program logic centres on the outcomes that arise from our program. In some models, the longer-term outcomes column is labelled ‘impact’. Ultimately, all changes arising from our program are impacts, and this is another example of the conceptual broadening of focus beyond our outputs to also include the changes and benefits that we want to see arising from our research.
An important reminder
We know that program logic is not a perfect tool – no such tool exists. Change does not usually happen in the way we expect or plan, and change is not often a linear process. Program logic is best thought of as a “theory of change”; it is your informed, logical hypothesis that you will test, revise, assess and adapt as you go. It is a living document, and very useful in impact planning.