‘Going public’ with decisionmaking

This is a joint post with Heather – 4th in our series on decisionmaking; now also on the World Bank PSD blog


In our last post, we discussed how establishing “relevant reasons” for decision-making ex ante may enhance the legitimacy and fairness of deliberations on resource allocation. We also highlight that setting relevant decision-making criteria can inform evaluation design by highlighting what evidence needs to be collected.

We specifically focus on the scenario of an agency deciding whether to sustain, scale or shut down a given programme after piloting it with an accompanying evaluation — commissioned explicitly to inform that decision. Our key foci are both how to make evidence useful to informing decisions and how, recognizing that evidence plays a minor role in decision-making, to ensure decision-making is done 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 will bring legitimacy to deliberations and, he further argues, consequent fairness to the decision.

In this post, we continue with the second criterion to ensure A4R: the publicity of decisions taken drawing on the first criterion, relevant reasons. We consider why transparency – that is, making decision criteria public – enhances the fairness and coherence of those decisions. We also consider what ‘going public’ means for learning.

Disclaimer: logistical uncertainties / room for conversation and experimentation

From the outset, we acknowledge the many unanswered questions about how much publicity or transparency suffice for fairness and how to carry it out.

  • Should all deliberations be opened to the public? Made available ex post via transcripts or recordings? Or, is semi-transparency — explicitly and publicly announcing ex post the criteria deemed necessary and sufficient to take the final decision — acceptable, while the deliberation remains behind closed doors?

  • Who is the relevant public?

  • Can transparency be passive – making the information available to those who seek it out – or does fairness require a more active approach?

  • What does ‘available’ or ‘public’ mean in contexts of low-literacy and limited media access?

We do not address these questions — which are logistical and empirical as well as moral — here. As the first-order concern, we consider why this criterion matters.

Fairness in specific decisions

Any decision about resource allocation and limit-setting will be contrary to the preferences of some stakeholders – both those at and not at the decision table. In our scenario, for example, some implementers will have invested some quantity of blood, sweat and tears into piloting a program and may, as a result, have opinions on whether the program should continue; or, those that were comfortable in their inaction (as a result of lack of directives or funds or just plain neglect) who will now have to participate in a scale-up. There will be participants that benefitted during the pilot – and those who would have done so if the programme were scaled – that may prefer to see the programme maintained.

These types of unmet preferences shape Daniels’s central concern: what can an agency* say to those people whose preferences are not met by a decision to convince them that, indeed, the decision “seems reasonable and based on considerations that take… [their] welfare into account?”** Being able to give acceptable explanations to stakeholders about a decision is central to fairness.

Coherence across decisions

The acceptability of criteria for a given decision contribute to the fairness of that decision. But long-run legitimacy of decision-makers benefits from consistency and coherency in organizational policy. Transparency, and the explicitness it requires, can foster this.

Once reasons for a decision are made public, it is more difficult to not deal with similar cases similarly – the use of ‘precedent’ in judicial cases aptly illustrates this phenomenon. Treating like as like is an important requirement of fairness. Daniels envisions that a series of explicated decisions can function as an organizational counterpart of ‘case law’. Future decision-makers can draw on past deliberations to establish relevant reasons. Deviations from past decisions would need to be justified by relevant reasons.

Implications for learning, decision-making and evaluations

If all decision-makers acknowledge that, at least, the final reasons for their decisions will be publicly accessible, how might that change the way they commission an evaluation and set about using the evidence from it?

  • It should encourage a review of past deliberations to help determine currently relevant reasons. Second, it might encourage decision-makers and evaluators to consider as relevant reasons and measures that will be explainable and understandable to the public(s) when justifying their decisions.

  • In planning evaluations, decision-makers and researchers will have to consider the clarity in methods of data collection and analysis — effectively, will it pass a ‘grandmother test’? Moreover, does it pass such a test when that granny is someone affected by your allocative decision? Remember the central question that makes this criterion necessary: what can an agency say to those whose preferences are not met by a decision that, indeed, the decision “seems reasonable and based on considerations that take… [their] welfare into account?”

  • There are reasons that decision-makers might shy away from transparency. In his work on health plans, Daniels notes that such organizations speculatively feared media and litigious attacks. In our pilot-and-evaluate scenario, some implementers may not be comfortable with publicising pilots that may fail; or from raising expectations of beneficiaries that are part of pilots.

  • The fear of failure may influence implementers; this may lead to low-risk/low-innovation pilots. Again, this is an important consideration raised above, in the questions we did not answer: when and how much transparency suffices for fairness?

In our last blog, we stressed on the importance of engaging stakeholders in setting ‘relevant reasons’ before a project begins, as a key step towards fair deliberative processes as well as a way of shaping evaluations to be useful for decision-making. Ensuring publicity and transparency of the decision-making criteria strengthens the perception of a fair and reasonable process in individual cases and over time.

This also sets the stage for an appeals process, where 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 – the subject of our next post in this series.


*We note that donors don’t actually often have to answer directly to implementers and participants for their decisions. We do not, however, dismiss this as a terrible idea.

**We are explicitly not saying ‘broader’ welfare because we are not endorsing a strictly utilitarian view that the needs of some can be sacrificed if the greater good is enhanced, no matter where or how  that good is concentrated.



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