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Allowing ‘Revisibility’ in Decision-Making

Heather Lanthorn's picture

Throughout this series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4), we have considered two main issues. First, how can evidence and evaluation be shaped to be made more useful - that is, directly useable - in guiding decision-makers to initiate, modify, scale-up or drop a program? Or, as recently pointed out by Jeff Hammer, how can we better evaluate opportunity costs between programs, to aid in making decisions. Second, given that evidence will always be only part of policy/programmatic decision, how can we ensure that decisions are made (and perceived to be made) fairly?

For such assurance, we primarily rely on Daniels’ framework for promoting “accountability for reasonableness” (A4R) among decision-makers. If the four included criteria are met, Daniels argues, it brings legitimacy to deliberative processes and, he further argues, consequent fairness to the decision and coherence to decisions over time.

The first two criteria set us up for the third: first, decision-makers agree ex ante to constrain themselves to relevant reasons (determined by stakeholders) in deliberation and, second, make public the grounds for a decision after the deliberation. These first two, we argue, can aid organizational learning and coherence in decision-making over time by setting and using precedent over time - an issue that has been bopping around the blogosphere this week.

These criteria, and an approach ensuring A4R more generally, are also a partial response to increasing calls for donor transparency, made loudly in Mexico City this week via the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. These calls focus on the importance of public availability of data as the key ingredient of donor (and decision-maker) transparency. We concur on their importance. But we argue that it is incomplete without an inclusive process of setting relevant reasons on how those data are used (recognizing that they will always only be part of the process) and making the decision criteria as well public.

The publicity and transparency around decision-making opens the door for A4R’s third criterion (and the subject of this post): the possibility to appeal and revise decisions. As Daniels notes, this condition “closes the loop between decision-makers and those who are affected by their policies.”

As a quick reminder of our guiding scenario: we specifically focus on the scenario of an agency deciding whether to sustain, scale, or shut-down a given program after piloting it with an accompanying evaluation -- commissioned explicitly to inform that decision.

In most decision-making of this kind, some stakeholders -- often would-be beneficiaries -- will not agree with the decision and even feel or be adversely affected. While we suggest that stakeholders be involved in the earlier process of setting relevant reasons, a grievance-redressal or dispute-resolution mechanism, as provided by the revisibility criterion, gives these stakeholders an opportunity to voice their perspectives, based on the original grounds of the decision.

They can do this because the decision-criteria are made public, via criterion 2. This “visible and public” space for further deliberation provides stakeholders have a route “back into the policy formulation process.” Stakeholders can use evidence available to them to advocate a certain way forward; it also allows for stakeholders to revisit the decision-making criteria and the decisions they fostered. Stakeholders therefore have the opportunity to make a case for a change in the decision.

Why might past decisions be questioned? Since the appeals process is largely based on the original decision criteria, appeals come if circumstances around those reasons changed. For example, in considering relevant reasons, feasibility was one category of criteria we proposed, such as government’s capacity to scale a program or their interest in the program. One can imagine that over time, over changes in regime, and over changes in politics and policy, the original answers to these criteria could change, opening space for appeals. An additional set of proposed relevant reasons related to cost, effectiveness, and cost-effectiveness. The costs of technologies and materials may change over time or fresh evidence could come out about long-term benefits of programs This alters the original cost-benefit ratio, again, opening a space for appeals against the original decision.

Such appeals may come from members of civil society (or government) that would like to see the program brought back to life (or to see it go away). These may also come from donors themselves wanting to look at their decision-making over time and implement changes in line with the changing context.

Daniels is careful to note, and we emphasize, that the power and purpose of this criterion is not that citizens will always overturn prior decisions. Decisions on limits are requisite, as needs generally outstrip resources.* Rather, the revisability criterion allows for reconsideration and reflection on those decisions by those knowledgeable about the topic and empowered to alter decisions, if seen fit and feasible. This can, Daniels notes, bring further legitimacy to decision-making processes and, again, improved decision-making over time.

We want to stress that these deliberations over decision-making and their ‘revisibility’ has to be situated in a rational and ethical decision-making framework, predicated on meeting needs fairly when not all can be met (distinct from, say, a legal framework). Appeals will have to be judged on the original merits of the arguments as well as with recognition that aid resources have limits (although obviously, a different argument can be made that aid budgets should simply be bigger).  Moreover, appeals need to be judged by people who understand the original decision and have the power to change it, if that is the decision taken. When decision-making criteria are set, they set the roadmap for a possible appeals process and should be accordingly discussed and agreed upon.

We started this series of posts by admitting the limited role evidence plays in decision-making -- even when those commissioning evidence intend specifically to inform that decision. We considered how planning for decision-making can help in the production of more useful evidence and also how decisions can be made fairly, through the delineation of relevant reasons, the publicity of the decision criteria ultimately used, and now, the possibility of revisiting through criteria and revising decisions.

Our thoughts in this series of posts should not make fair decision-making seem like an impossible task. Not all aspects of each of these considerations can be taken into account - the constraints of the real world are not lost on us and A4R remains an ideal, though we think one that can be approached. In our final post of this series, we therefore attempt to close the loop by looking at enforcement - asking how these ideas can be enforced and decision-makers held accountable.

*See. e.g., Richard Horton’s recent slide about the limit-breaking decisions by courts and the effects on health care systems, as in cases like Colombia. Experiments with health courts may be instructive.
 

Photo Credit: Gerhard Jörén via World Bank's Photo Collection, available here

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