Opening the Black Box of Decision-Making

It’s no wonder people can be cynical about the value of stakeholder engagement. They submit their ideas and never see them again.

We’re getting better at engaging people, better at assuring them their input matters, better perhaps at telling them their input is being considered alongside other inputs, and occasionally better at telling them what was eventually decided. But the path between their input and that decision is still largely shrouded in mystery.

And my sense is that it happens not because we intend to be cryptic or secretive. It’s because the decision-making process is mysterious even to the decision makers.

Are you clear on who makes the decision, based on what inputs, how those inputs will be weighted and evaluated against what criteria?

We are used to doing this, at least partway, in other contexts:

In most Requests for Proposals I receive, for example, the evaluation criteria are listed, usually with a weighting out of 100. Although I might not know who’s making the decision, I know what’s important to them. I likely don’t know, however, what a ‘gold star’ would look like to them in each case. What’s worthy of 100%?

When I teach university courses, I am expected to create assessment rubrics for student assignments. There, I provide details on what I am looking for and what a “Level 4” standard of achievement is on a four-point scale. Students know that the decision on marks is mine to make. They may not know, however, how heavily I weight each element of the rubric in assigning the final grade.

In community planning, resident input is usually combined with the findings of various technical reports, filtered through legislation and other pre-existing policies, measured against a budget, mixed in with a bunch of precedents, habits, assumptions, intuition, preferences and politics and voila — out pops a strategy.

As a facilitator, part of my job as making that unconscious mess of factors more deliberate and explicit — first for decision-makers and then for the people their decisions affect.

Is your decision-making process “out loud” and “on purpose?” Your stakeholders’ engagement, including yours, will be higher and more meaningful if so.

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