This paper reports on work carried out in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, which used a Sustainable Livelihoods approach to assess the impact of policy and services on poverty. It used the approach in following through a ‘vertical transect’ of the public administration from village to central ministries. As a result the sustainable livelihoods framework has been adapted into one for examining institutional issues. This first paper addresses the conceptual issues and methodological learnings of undertaking this type of audit. Paper 50 in this series summarises the key findings from the four case study countries/provinces.