The First Rule of participative decision making

I have written elsewhere about the distinction between fundamental objectives and means objectives (see the classic work by Keeney). What is the difference? To use an example from our success stories on this site:

Means objective: Build an ultra-violet water treatment plant
Fundamental (end) objective: Provide safe water for the lowest possible cost

The means objective is a way (a means) of hopefully satisfying the fundamental objective of safe inexpensive drinking water.1 The advantage of focusing on ends, rather than means, is that there are many different ways to achieve a fundamental objective. Taking the debate up a notch or two in the objectives hierarchy creates much more sea room for technical specialists to design a solution that is acceptable to more people.

This leads us to the First Rule of Participative Decision-Making:

Citizens own the ends; subject matter experts own the means

By definition, community stakeholders are the most important source of fundamental objectives in local government. Governments must therefore expend the effort to find out what these objectives are in the context of a particular problem. Of course, as we have emphasized elsewhere, there is never just one fundamental objective. Instead, each individual has multiple fundamental objectives and these often interact and conflict in complex ways. For example, the desire for material comfort and convenience may conflict with the desire for environmental sustainability, so an appropriate tradeoff must be found. Moreover, different individuals have different objectives and different priorities based on their own preferences and interests. So what counts as an “appropriate” tradeoff depends on who you talk to. That is why we talk about a “preference landscape” rather than just “preferences”.

The other side of the First Rule is that subject matter experts own the means. After all, if the fundamental objectives are well defined, should citizens care precisely how those ends are achieved? Does the average person really know or care enough about the operational differences between ultraviolet treatment and different types of water filtration to register an opinion? Or do those people just want cheap, safe water?  Subject matter experts are the engineers, planners, accountants, lawyers, recreation specialists, and so on who we pay precisely because they know how to do things.  They possess specialized knowledge, skills, and experience that is essential in navigating complex problems.

The problem is that we often get the First Rule backwards in local government:

We let the subject matter experts assume the objectives and then ask lay citizens to weigh-in on the virtues of specific alternatives.


There are two obvious problems with this. First, subject matter experts often prioritize objectives that matter more to subject matter experts than the community. This is why public infrastructure is often so ugly: the engineers who decide on the designs are evaluated on (and thus care more about) on-budget and on-time delivery than aesthetics. The people who have to look at the eyesore for the next 50 years may feel differently2. Second, public debates about means inevitably get bogged down in conflicting facts, hardening stances, and acrimony. If someone uses the term “misinformation” to describe the other side of the debate, you can be pretty sure your community is debating means, not ends.

How does this happen? I have written about this elsewhere, but a common source of the first part of decision role reversal—letting subject matter experts, not the community, determine the objectives that frame the entire decision—is the requirement to make a spreadsheet. Many local governments use a variant of multi-criteria decision-making (MCDM) to evaluate alternatives, which is in itself admirable. However, any MCDM analysis starts with a spreadsheet and too often, the mid-level staffer delegated to build the spreadsheet is also implicitly tasked with filling in the objectives and assigning weights. Fair enough. No council or board is interested in mucking around with objectives and weights in a spreadsheet. Their role is meant to be strategic. The problem is this: there is nothing more strategic than the objectives and weights at the core of every MCDM analysis. Cede control of the evaluation criteria and you cede control of the decision3.

A common source of of the second part of decision role reversal—asking lay citizens to weigh-in on the virtues of specific alternatives—is more baffling. A quick glance at any referendum on a complex issue (off the top of my head: STV, GST/HST, Brexit) illustrates the chaos that ensues when you ask lay citizens to make complex decisions.  Such referenda completely undermine the core strength of representative democracy (our system) and naively assume that subject matter experts and lay citizens are interchangeable.  They are not.  It is like voting on the best way to tackle a complex disease (oh, wait a minute...)

Participative decision making is not a free-for-all.  It is a disciplined approach that respects the essential roles of citizens and subject matter experts.  Hence the First Rule.


1 Purists will argue that “provide safe water for the lowest possible cost” is not a fundamental objective; it is merely means of achieving quality-of-life objectives. But fundamental objectives are relative to a decision context, which in this example is fixing a broken water system.

2 This implies that the fundamental objectives for fixing the water system might be: (a) safe water (b) low cost (c) minimal visual impact.

3 There are worse versions of this, of course. I have seen the spreadsheet delegated to consultants. So not only were the fundamental objectives not driven by local knowledge of preferences and interests (the consultants were from out of town). But, not surprisingly, the objectives—the criteria used to identify the best course of action—were heavily weighted in favor of that consulting firm’s specific expertise. The result? Well, let’s just say when you have residents lining the streets waving protest placards to shout-down a decision, you have done something wrong. In such cases, you don’t have a communications problem; you have a much more serious decision-making technique problem.