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Theory of change process for public services

The UK government launched a new “youth hub” offer of employment services to young people affected by the disruption of the covid-19 pandemic. Through four days of workshops with key stakeholders, which included engaging young people, Impetus ran a theory of change process to enable one of the flagship hubs to co-design their new service to best serve young people. This is the first time that Impetus has applied its theory of change tools, and its impact focus to a government policy initiative. The output of the work  provided a blueprint for what a youth hub should look like and in turn offered a framework and best practices to be rolled out at other youth hubs across the country. This theory of change approach enables government policy to be translated into successful delivery by helping frontline agencies fill in the details to deliver on a governmental headline announcement.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Governments often announce new initiatives in public services, but there is a big difference between announcing an ambition or service and delivering well. This was a particular challenge during the covid-19 pandemic when governments had to respond at pace to developments, and implementation work often had to take place remotely or in a hybrid format. Impetus has over a decade of experience funding and supporting UK youth charities to improve their impact and grow their reach. An important part of the process is their “driving impact” approach, a series of theory of change workshops and support to help organisations align on essential items like the young people they exist to serve and the outcomes they are trying to achieve. These are crucial anchor points to inform the design of high impact programmes.

England’s West Midlands Combined Authority (regional government) and the regional office of the government’s Department of Work approached Impetus to determine whether their theory of change tools could be adapted to apply to the new “youth hub” service. The government had plans for around 150 youth hubs across England, with a site in Birmingham in the West Midlands region identified as a “demonstrator” site for others to follow. The regional teams wanted support to deliver on launching the service and ensuring it delivered well for young people and was a role model for other sites.

Through a series of workshops held from May to July 2021, we aimed to bring together strategic partners to align on and determine:

  • A high-level mission
  • Which young people the youth hub was trying to help
  • What outcome it wanted to achieve with them
  • How best to use the resources at its disposal to achieve that
  • How to track the impact of its work and use that to manage performance

The key principles behind the workshop approaches were:

  • Co-design: Mix of senior leadership, front-line staff, and partners to ensure everyone was aligned towards a common vision and goal
  • Layered approach: Each session built on the previous one, with stakeholders aligning in between workshops
  • Empathetic challenge: Facilitators brought challenging questions, but answers came from participants

The output of the work  provided a blueprint for what a youth hub should look like. This blueprint offers a framework for the specific Birmingham library, as well as best practices which can be rolled out at other youth hubs across the country. This theory of change approach enables government policy to be translated into successful delivery by helping the frontline fill in the details behind a headline announcement. Government benefits from seeing its policies rolled out more effectively, regional actors get support to deliver on government proposals, and frontline delivery benefits from taking time to develop a clear understanding of what they are trying to achieve, which they can use to inform their rollout and delivery. The ultimate beneficiary is the service user – in this specific case, young people whose employment prospects were impacted by the covid-19 pandemic. Currently, Impetus is taking the lessons from this project to develop their approach to applying theory of change and impact tools to elements of public services and is working on a project with a university that will launch in 2023.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

There are a wide variety of attempts at policymaking and lobbying that focus on trying to get government to set particular objectives or approaches. However, most policy inevitably leaves a level of detail to be worked out in the implementation and  good implementation is essential to the success of any government initiative. Despite this, there is often a disconnect between the policy community of big ideas and those who ultimately have to deliver on decisions, or implement them. The approach that was developed tries to bridge that gap and its innovative nature resides in bringing theory of change work from the third sector to government initiatives and public services.

What is the current status of your innovation?

Impetus is now planning to run a similar series of theory of change workshops with a university widening participation department. Universities in England spend around £800m a year supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education, mandated by government as part of their ability to charge students fees. This work will conclude in early 2023 with a blueprint for this service, which regulators can use to shape this work across the higher education sector more widely.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

  • Impetus policy – understanding of how a particular service is replicated at scale by government initiatives
  • Impetus programme team – understanding of how to use theory of change process to support delivery organisations to deliver high impact service
  • Frontline delivery staff – understanding of the day to day work required to support young people
  • Service users (young people) – understanding of the challenges they face and support they need
  • Regional partners – ultimately in charge of delivering

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

  • Government – benefited from policy initiatives being rolled out successfully
  • Regional partners – provided support to turn the government's idea into a coherent plan with core principles for further decision making
  • Delivery staff – benefited from having a clear sense of what to do, why to do it, and understanding the core principles for decision making
  • Service users (young people) – benefited from receiving high quality service that supports them to succeed

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

The blueprint is being implemented in Birmingham and has influenced the government’s thinking across the wider youth hubs network. The government has not yet published outcomes data or evaluations of youth hubs, so there is no official data on the effects of the policy or the theory of change work. However, the lessons from the theory of change work are broadly applicable across employment services for young people in general. Given that the economic cycle means the group of young people needing these services expands and contracts on a regular basis. The work that was conducted will also inform future policy interventions in this space.

Challenges and Failures

The UK labour market has been stronger than anticipated when this work was carried out. This means fewer young people are in need of a youth hub’s support, and those that are have bigger and different barriers to employment than anticipated. This has limited the impact of the youth hub policy across the board. When working with the public sector in comparison to charities, complexity in ownership on what is to be delivered creates barriers to “doing things differently”. Managers responsible for projects do not necessarily have the freedom to innovate, and those whose authority is required to unlock budgets may be far removed from the work.

These challenges can be mitigated by:

  • Working with established rather than innovative services
  • Ensuring partners have sufficient high level buy-in to enable change

Conditions for Success

Among the main conditions for success for projects like this one are management buy-in and a willingness of front-line staff to think differently. Regarding management buy-in, it is key for those who can authorise/enable things to be done differently, especially where budgets are concerned and,  in particular, an empowered leader to drive change and hold others accountable is vital. In regards to front-line staff, it is necessary that they can imagine what is possible, despite working (often for many years) in a system where these decisions are made for them and their freedom of manoeuvre is relatively constrained. Both these conditions also depend on a degree of stability in the underlying organisation structure, in other words there should be no ongoing big restructures or change projects that distract attention from the theory of change work.


This innovation can theoretically be replicated with any area of public service delivery. All that is required is for there to be a big picture policy aim, and a need to translate that into a more detailed framework for service design and delivery. We are in the process of preparing to run an improved version of this intervention, with a UK university “widening participation” service, to support them to improve services for underrepresented groups in higher education.

Lessons Learned

For this kind of work to succeed it needs leadership. Long leadership chains can create barriers to “doing things differently”. Managers responsible for projects or services do not necessarily have freedom to innovate. Conversely, decision making power and budgets may sit with senior staff far removed from the work and without the time to engage in the details. A leader must be empowered to drive change, for which the capacity of holding others accountable is vital. This can either mean empowering a mid-level staff leader, or a senior leader investing time being involved in the process.

There is also an element of luck. In this particular case, the UK labour market has been stronger than anticipated. As a result, fewer young people are in need of a youth hub’s support, and service users have bigger barriers to employment than anticipated. This has impacts on the work of the youth hubs and the applicability of the theory of change work conducted, as it was conducted with a different set of assumptions.

Anything Else?

This work was delivered in partnership with Resurgo, a charity Impetus has funded for many years and who delivers an excellent employment support programme of their own. You can find more information about them here:

Year: 2021
Level of Government: Regional/State government


  • Implementation - making the innovation happen
  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

Innovation provided by:

Date Published:

31 July 2023

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