Committees and boards charged with serving the public trust are often faced with difficult decisions. While it is not possible to always make the right decision every time for everyone, here are five strategies that if enabled can increase your “better” factor.
Complex issues, controversial policies, and tough questions are often a challenge for public sector organizations. Overcoming these complexities and making the right decision is an utmost priority because its consequences affect whole communities.
Governing and legislative bodies have formal decision-making processes in place to create accountability and transparency in decision-making. But, as we all know, the wrong decisions sometimes happen. The questions then is, what can governing bodies do to decrease poor decisions? Logic and experience tell us that right decisions won’t happen every time, but if better information coupled with processes and guidelines can be enacted, it is likely that better ones can be made in a more transparent, collaborative, and accountable way.
Making Better Decisions
1. Look at the Big Picture
“What’s called a difficult decision is a difficult decision because either way you go there are penalties.” Elia Kazan
Councilors, committee and board members have a tough job. Elected, hired or appointed to serve the public, they make choices on a daily basis. And, typically every decision has penalties. While impacting the community as a whole, these decisions often favour certain subgroups, while negatively impacting others.
Looking at the big picture involves a balancing acting, weighing implications and putting public interest first with diversity of needs in mind. Taking into consideration as many factors as possible and weighing a decision’s consequences is a step toward making a better decision.
Big picture questions might include:
- What are short-term and long-term implications of this decision?
- Do the costs or savings associated with the decision make it justifiable?
- Who benefits directly from this decision? Who is hurt the most?
- Does this decision take into account the diversity of interests, while meeting a public interest?
- Do we have all the information? Are we missing any critical components?
Decisions often do not make all interested parties happy, but looking at the big picture keeps everyone in mind.
2. Listen to the Experts
“The key to good decision making is evaluating the available information – the data – and combining it with your own estimates of pluses and minuses.” Emily Oster
For complex issues or controversial policy choices, the answer is not always clear upfront and requires the advice of experts backed by credible data to make an informed choice. Accountability is becoming a required mandate. The public is concerned about how decisions are made and what information supports decision makers’ choices.
And while listening to the experts and relying on their data to make informed decisions is important, it is equally important to ensure that their instruction is readily available to all stakeholders. Public meetings, video streaming and easy access to experts’ reports all help to meet growing concerns for transparency and accountability in decision-making.
3. Enable an Open Dialogue
“The fundamental principle underlying efforts to achieve effective communication and participation would seem to be … that those affected by decisions should have the opportunity to affect those decisions.” Thomas Borton
Better, more informed decisions are made when the public is involved, but their direct participation in the process is sometimes difficult to achieve. Creating an open dialogue between decision makers, experts, and the public requires education, access, and interaction. Technology today has provided a platform for genuine participation and communication with the public. By leveraging new technologies the public can meaningfully participate in the decision-making process and be kept informed as information becomes available. Mobility and online access removes barriers and encourages the public to become more involved in the issues facing their communities. Knowing they have a voice in the process increases constituent satisfaction as well as overall faith in their local government.
4. Avoid Indecision
“In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Theodore Roosevelt
Doing nothing leads to inaction and breaks trust. On some issues, finding consensus is difficult and the delicate negotiations around decision-making hits a stalemate. Collaboration is needed in the toughest times to find that consensus and serve the public interest.
In a research paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they examine the long-term financial impact of government indecision, determining that the cost of indecision increases fiscal burdens which ultimately penalize the public. “Governments are known for procrastinating when it comes to resolving painful policy problems. Whatever the political motives for waiting to decide, procrastination distorts economic decisions relative to what would arise with early policy resolution. In so doing, it engenders excess burden.”
Moving forward – even on painful issues – and communicating the outcomes enables all parties to continue momentum, while reducing overall costs.
5. Assess and Revise
“Change is a continuous process. You cannot assess it with the static yardstick of a limited time frame. When a seed is sown into the ground, you cannot immediately see the plant. You have to be patient. With time, it grows into a large tree. And then the flowers bloom, and only then can the fruits be plucked.” Mamata Banerjee
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. We never really know if the right decision was made until its consequences take effect – and even then it might not be completely clear if an alternative option would have been better. Assessing past decisions as part of an overall decision-making process will only help make better ones going forward. They serve as criteria for how to evaluate future circumstances, can be used as a new standard, and possibly enable new decision-criteria going forward.