Step 5: Trade Offs


Although the SDM process often delivers “win-wins” most decisions will still involve trade-offs of some kind; hence, the next step involves evaluating these trade-offs and making value-based choices. For example, it may be possible to deliver different levels of environmental protection (environmental flows for example) at different levels of investment, or it may be necessary to set priorities among different development objectives (e.g., irrigation versus rural electrification or drinking water provision). These trade-offs will be exposed and efforts will be made to gain an understanding of how the people most affected view them. Who is consulted and who participates in making choices may vary by the decision – with the involvement of senior government officials and national/international civil society organizations for strategic decisions and with their local counterparts for project-level decisions.

Under SDM, it is not the method (SDM) or some external analysis that does the evaluation, but those seen as legitimate stakeholders, based on their own values and their understanding of the values of those affected. The SDM process requires that decision makers make explicit choices about which alternative is preferred. This can be done holistically by reviewing the trade-offs in the consequence table and assigning ranks or preferences to the alternatives directly. In this approach, participants implicitly think about which impacts are more or less important, and which set of trade-offs is more or less acceptable. Alternatively, structured methods for more explicitly weighting the evaluation criteria, making trade-offs, and scoring and ranking the alternatives may be used.

The SDM process is designed to support, but not require, such structured preference assessment methods. When they are used, they should be designed to provide insight and guidance to decision makers, rather than to prescribe a formulaic answer. They can be used to focus deliberations on productive areas and maintain a performance-based dialogue, rather than a positional one. Structured methods can be demanding, but participants are generally enthusiastic about exploring their own trade-offs, learning about the values and choices of others, and knowing that (in the case of stakeholders) their input has been systematically recorded and taken to decision makers. At minimum, an emphasis on deliberative quality requires that stakeholders and decision makers involved at this stage should be expected to:

  • demonstrate an understanding of the decision scope and context, how it is related to other decisions, why the problem matters, and for whom the consequences are most relevant;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the evaluation criteria, the alternatives and the key trade-offs among the alternatives;
  • demonstrate an understanding of key uncertainties and their impact on the performance of the alternatives;
  • articulate their preferences for the alternatives in terms of the trade-offs that are presented in the consequence table.

While stakeholder consensus is desirable in the SDM process, it is not mandatory. Areas of agreement and disagreement among stakeholders and the reasons for disagreement should be documented and presented to decision makers. To the extent that there is a significant difference between the views of technical specialists and the views of non-technical stakeholders, these differences and the reasons for them should be highlighted.

Key Ideas

  • SDM helps find ‘win-wins’ but also highlights (and therefore obliges people to consider) trade-offs between alternatives
  • SDM requires that decision makers be explicit about the choices that they make
  • SDM enables (but does not require) structured preference assessment techniques that help participants understand their preferences when considering complex trade-offs