October 15, 2012 at 4:10 pm #171007
Decision-making is an everyday part of life. Often in government, however, administrators are faced with complex decisions, which involve several interrelated issues. Many times, unspoken tradeoffs are made in the final determination. Hopefully, the decision-maker(s) lands on a course of action that best addresses all the key issues in light of the tradeoffs, while sufficiently accounting for each issue’s importance relative to the broader, overarching objective. If they have framed the problem well from the outset, included the right individuals in the process, and worked through the challenges in an insightful manner then the chances of this is much more likely. But when multiple competing and interrelated issues are involved, how do you keep all these items straight? How do you discern which of the factors at hand is most important? And how can administrators have reasonable assurance that the decision they make is consistent with the issues at hand? Take for example, the decision the Department of Veteran Affairs faces in how to prioritize a plethora of much needed IT modernization projects in light of a very constrained IT budget and a history of less than stellar IT project performance. How do they know, except after-the-fact, that they have not slighted a critical need for improved financial reporting in light of another important need to provide benefits to our veterans (of which I am also one)? Or what about the Department of Labor, does every objective in the strategic plan carry the same weight in reality? As a consequence, if there is misalignment between the realities of how the agencies resources are applied and the criticality of the factors affecting the problem they are ultimately trying to solve, then effectiveness and progress towards the goal will be less than desired!
Recently, a team I was a part of tackled a very similar issue, as we sought to develop a very useful methodology and application to help government agencies achieve higher levels of program integrity, as it relates to government funded grant programs. We slowly recognized that if the accessibility, effectiveness, and stewardship of grant programs is to be elevated to a superior level, then the systemic issues that adversely impact individual grant programs must not only be “understood”, within some reasonable and realistic framework – they have to also be “prioritized” within the broader context of the program. We know that resources are limited and we can only do so much at a time with what we have. How did we solve this dilemma? View the attached file to learn more.
October 15, 2012 at 5:42 pm #171016
You can always find a paper trail of the decisions that are made, but you’ll rarely find, apart from memoirs written 20 years later, any record of HOW values and priorities were balanced off against each other and decisions were made.
As Boomers retire from the public sector, I think one of the most valuable things we can do is have brown-bag sessions on Fridays, or whatever, where soon-to-retire people reflect on “the toughest decisions I ever had to make on the job”. Obviously there will be things people won’t or shouldn’t discuss publicly, especially if it treads into the privacy of others, but even if the decision may have not seemed particularly precipitous to the external observer, that doesn’t mean the decision-makers had an easy and straightforward time of it.
In some respects, the balancing of values, stakeholder needs, and institutional priorities, is a VERY useful “on-boarding” exercise for new employees, who need to understand the thought processes of the organization.
October 15, 2012 at 6:33 pm #171014
Mark – I like your idea of the “brown-bag sessions”. I would think that some of the insight that could be gained would be invaluable, provided the session is well-facilitated. I like to think of what you’re referring to as “tribal knowledge”. A level of intuition that for the most part, only comes through interaction, observation, and/or first-hand experience.
October 15, 2012 at 8:54 pm #171012
It is also an opportunity for organizational history to be brought to the fore. We forget how much values come from shared history, and not from thin air.
While I expect that some senior staff, especially managers, would be reluctant to admit frailty or hesitancy in a public forum, at the same time, I suspect a great many junior staff underestimate just how much management can, and regularly does, incorporate into their decision-making. It’s not JUST money, or making one’s own managers happy. There’s public trust, there’s the trust of stakeholders in other agencies, there’s the reputation of the organization, the ability of people to work together come Monday morning, the long-term sustainability of any consequences of the decision. And yes, because we are none of us oracles, there are regrets.
I work in a federal agency comparable to MSPB, in surveys of staffing practice. And one of the things I am constantly reminded about is that every staffing activity is simultaneously an exercise in staff relations. When we were focus-group testing survey items some years ago, one manager responded to a question inquiring about any perceived sense of obligation or indebtedness to some candidates, by telling the group facilitator “You know, I’m a little skittish about answering this. But on the other hand, this question tells me they (the folks involved in oversight of staffing) get it.” I.E., we gave clues that we understood how complicated even simple staffing decisions can sometimes be.
Finally, as is so often true, we often don’t realize exactly how we ourselves reason until we verbalize it. So its an opportunity to informally articulate and almost codify how one goes about making important decisions, as well as a recounting.
Ironically, I’m in preparation for a volunteer role as group facilitator for an orientation-to-the-public-service course offered for new Canadian federal employees. And one of the areas where there will be materials and discussion concerns values and ethics, and how they get, and should be, incorporated into decision-making and actions. The ethical dilemmas provide interesting fodder for discussion, and help illustrate just how complex some kinds of decisions can be, whether they involve co-workers or multi-million dollar budgets.
What you aim for, at the end, is not so much ethical “orthodoxy”, as much as ethical nimbleness. Sometimes the hardest part is not the weighting of the things that matter, as much as simply identifying what ought to matter. Solving problems always begins by describing them, and that begins with seeing them clearly and fully.
October 16, 2012 at 2:42 pm #171010
Mark – well put. Because of the issues that you are hitting at: complexity, values, and history, this is especially why I try to approach the challenge in two phases: (1) decide what matters and (2) decide how much it matters? In both cases, I get much more success when I include the opinions of those who have an in-depth understanding of the subject matter and a vested interest in a successful outcome.
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