Four processes of decision-making
Whether small or large, short- or long-term, studied or impulsive, decision-making involves four major elements: problem definition, information search, choice, and evaluation. They are not sequential, they occur simultaneously. And it is often difficult to identify when a decision process begins and ends as most important choices are ongoing.
The first step in defining a problem is recognizing that it exists.
Then, problems are plentiful; attention is scare. Selecting a problem for attention and placing it on the policy agenda is the most important element in policy making. When a problem is given attention, it gains focus and takes shape.
How a problem is defined affects how it is addressed. The problem of the homeless is a good example. The people without home have always been with us. Most often they have been seen as people who because of their own weaknesses could not find work and afford homes. They were dismissed as drunks and drifters. So defined, the homeless remained a problem in the background – a problem for the Salvation Army, not the government. But as their number grew, we began to take a closer look. We saw individuals discharged from mental institutions, the unemployed whose benefits had expired, and families unable to afford decent home. And we started seeing “the homeless” as people in desperate situations. This change in our perception altered the decision process. Homelessness is now a focus of policy debate.
When we are only vaguely aware that a problem exists, our first step is often to learn more about it, and this learning is an important step in the decision-making. Acid rain is a good example. First in Europe and then in North America, people noticed that trees were dying, and a few scientists began to ask why. Pollution and changes in climate were explored. Out of this active search for information the problem gained definition: air pollution is killing trees. Then, the solutions were considered. Reducing acid rains requires costly reduction in pollution created in regions often at great distance from the dying trees. Thus, the information defined the nature of the policy-making.
Information has always been central to governing, and governments are primary sponsors of research both in the sciences and humanities. Such research is driven by the interests of scholars and may not have immediate relevance to policy debate. But it may have important policy implications. For example, advances in lasers and genetic engineering influence defense and social policy in ways unanticipated by scientists or their government sponsors.
As problems are defined and information about problems and outcomes is examined, choices emerge. Weighing options and selecting are the most visible decision-making processes.
Sometimes choices are difficult and taking decisions is very hard, especially when choices are not clear and their results are unpredictable. Should we negotiate with terrorists? Do we want to save the lives of hostages, as family members prefer, or do we want to eliminate any incentive for future terrorism?
The selection process does not necessarily require reasoned judgments; the compromises of group decision-making often produce results that only few individuals prefer; satisfying single interests often means ignoring the interests of others.
Decisions do not end with choices among alternatives. Decision-making involves evaluating the effects and actions. Evaluation may be formal (an official study of the results produced by a new government program) or informal (scanning the news, talking to colleagues).
Whether formal or informal, evaluation is another form of information gathering after the choice.
The distinction between information search and evaluation is arbitrary. Before decision makers reach conclusions, most try to anticipate outcomes.
The most difficult aspect of evaluating choices is establishing the criteria. The most common criterion is the result – if things turn out well we feel that we made the right choice. But in this case we may confuse good luck with good decision-making (consider the decision to have a surgery: all surgery involves risk, and if a person chooses to take the very slight risk to remove a small tumor and dies during surgery, was the decision wrong?). Results are not universal criteria for the quality of a decision. The evaluation of any decision-making must involve looking at results and processes as well as the situation faced by decision makers.
Models of decision-making
There is no right or wrong way to make decisions. Sometimes cautious deliberation is the best path; at other times risks are required. But scholars speak about two broad categories of models of decision-making: rational and nonrational models.
Rational decisions are choices based on judgment of preferences and outcomes. They are not always turn out best and they do not eliminate the possibility of failure. Sometimes the goal is so important that it is rational to choose an option with little promise of payoff. Opting for experimental surgery is a rational choice over a life of pain.
In nonrational models choices do not result from the deliberate balancing of pros and cons. These models share the assumption that the mix of rules and participants shape choices, and that decisions result from the varying (though not necessarily accidental) mix of ingredients. Most of governmental decisions are within these models. The decision process there is too complex to take into account multiple goals, alternatives and impacts of every alternative; the time required to take a decision is too short; the finances are too thin to provide long researches.
Taken to extremes, rational models reduce human judgment to computation, and nonrational models portray decision outcomes as the result of forces beyond individual control.
Both rational and nonrational models of the decision process are products of value-neutral social science. Values enter rational decision models only in the form of preferences, but they are generally defined in terms of self-interest. An emerging view of decision-making places a stronger emphasis on decisions as value statements.
Английский язык для студентов, изучающих государственное управление. Л.М.Лещёва и др. Учебное пособие / На англ. яз.; Под ред. д.филол.н., профессора Л.М. Лещёвой. Часть I. – Мн.: Академия управления при Президенте Республики Беларусь, 2006. – , 203 с.