Step 1: Decision Context


The first step in good decision making involves defining what question or problem is being addressed and why, identifying who needs to be involved and how, establishing scope and bounds for the decision, and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the decision team.


Clarifying the decision context involves defining what decision is being made and why, as well as its relationship to other decisions previously made or anticipated. If risks are being ranked, why? How will the information be used in future decisions? If a change in policy or management is under consideration, what are the key drivers of the change and what are the underlying policy objectives? What is the general scope of alternatives under consideration and why? Gaining a clear and common understanding of the question is often harder than it seems, but is key to working on the answer.

Roles and responsibilities should be clearly established, including identification of the ultimate decision maker. Stakeholders and key technical experts are identified, and their role in the decision process defined.

It is also important to identify the constraints within which the decision will be made. These might include, for example, legal constraints, minimum performance requirements for selected outcomes, or other constraints that have been established through a prior decision process. The general range of alternatives under consideration is identified (what is in and out of scope), although not their specifics. Use caution in defining constraints at this stage. While some decisions are truly constrained by previous decisions, many apparent “constraints” could really be relaxed or dropped to facilitate a more wide-ranging search for creative options. Further, some policy constraints embed critical value-based or technical judgments that have never been truly examined, and are pivotal to public policy decision at hand. These policy constraints should be identified; often reaching the best solution will mean re-opening thm for more rigorous and transparent analysis and discussion.

Different decisions may have different outputs. In some cases, the output may be the selection of a preferred alternative from among a set of candidates. In others, it may be the ranking of alternatives in a set. Alternatively, the decision process may simply serve to screen out unacceptable alternatives or identify acceptable ones. It can be used to evaluate individual projects or initiatives, or to develop and evaluate sets of projects – often termed strategies, packages or portfolios. The decision process can also be used to screen, rank or select various kinds of problems (as opposed to alternatives) – e.g., hazards, communities or watersheds in need, information gaps, etc. as a step toward prioritizing where investments of time or resources should be made. In still other cases, what is important is timing, and the decision process will focus on strategies for making sequenced decisions. The output of the decision process should be established up front.

A great way to clarify the decision context is to hold a “scoping” session involving key people that quickly moves through all the steps of the SDM process in a one-day or half-day workshop. This stage should culminate in a decision charter or project plan that summarizes the approach to planning and consultation that will be taken for the decision.

Key Ideas

  • Clarify what decision is being made, and why
  • Establish roles and responsibilities
  • Identify the constraints within which the decision will be made
  • Hold a scoping session to develop a decision charter