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Decision Makers' Guidebook

Approaches to decision making

Rational analysis or “muddling through”?


Early studies of policy making highlighted two extreme approaches to decisions: a rational, analytical approach which leads inexorably to the “right” solution, and a less organised approach, often called “muddling through”, in which objectives are never specified, remedial action is taken when it becomes essential, and more important decisions are dependent on the power struggles between interest groups. While this second model can be seen at work in many of today’s cities, it is unlikely to be effective in tackling the challenges of unsustainability which we face. Equally an extreme reliance on analysis is inappropriate in a situation in which priorities and preferences differ and outcomes are uncertain. We have therefore looked for practical approaches between these extremes.

The ‘muddling through’ model
  • Objectives implicit, not explicit
  • Remedial action incremental
  • Frequent policy decisions
  • Several centres of power and influence
  • Attempts to obtain consensus
  • Satisficing rather than seeking the best solutions
Source: Mackie and Nellthorp (2003)

Which approaches have been used?

02 03 04 05 06

Cities differ in the ways in which they make decisions, but their approaches have often developed over time, rather than being formally prescribed. In our surveys we suggested three broad approaches: vision-led; plan-led; and consensus-led, and asked our cities to indicate which one or two of these best characterised their approach.

Vision-led approaches usually involve an individual (typically the mayor or committee leader) having a clear view of the future form of city they want, and the policy instruments needed to achieve that vision. The focus then is on implementing them as effectively as possible. Relatively few cities have a visionary leader in this sense, but there is evidence that in the past those which do have made the most progress.

Plan-led approaches involve specifying objectives and problems, sometimes in the context of a vision statement, and adopting an ordered procedure identifying possible solutions to those problems, and selecting those which perform best. In the true Objectives-led Approach the city first specifies its broad objectives (Section 7). Problems are highlighted as failure of current or predicted future conditions to meet the objectives. This list of problems can then be discussed with stakeholders to see whether they have different perceptions of the problems. If they do, objectives are redefined accordingly. The main drawback with this approach is that many politicians and members of the public are less familiar with the abstract concept of objectives (such as improving accessibility) than they are with concrete problems (such as the nearest job centre being 50 minutes away). Two variants are the Target-based Approach (Section 8) and the Problem-oriented Approach (Section 8).

Consensus-led approaches involve discussions between the stakeholders to try to reach agreement on each of the stages in the plan-led approach outlined in Section 6. Ideally agreement is needed on the objectives to be pursued and their relative importance; the problems to be tackled and their seriousness; the policy instruments to be considered and their appropriateness; the selection of policy instruments which best meet the objective; and the way in which they should be combined into an overall strategy, and implemented. In practice much consensus-building focuses on the choice of policy instruments, but it can be considerably enhanced by considering objectives and problems as well. Section 5 discusses participation for consensus building more fully.

Which approaches do cities adopt?

Few of the cities in the PROSPECTS survey considered that they adopted any one of these approaches alone. The most common approach is a mix of plan-led and consensus-led decision-making. The least common were those which focus primarily on visions or plans.

Which approach is best?

There is no simple answer to this question. There are some useful references on decision-making which consider the alternatives, but no clear agreement between them. However, there are some obvious pitfalls. A vision-led approach is critically dependent on the individual with the vision. If he or she leaves office, it may prove very difficult to avoid completely abandoning the strategy. A plan-led approach can become unduly dependent on professional planners, who may lose sight of the needs of politicians and stakeholders. A consensus-led approach may, unless agreement can be quickly reached and sustained, lead to delay and inaction. Not surprisingly, therefore, most cities adopt a mixed approach. The diagram shows an example from UK practice of a cyclical approach, in which vision, objectives and problem specification are determined through consultations, used to develop the strategy, and reviewed in the light of experience with implementation.

Where can I find out more?

DETR (2000)
Mackie & Nellthrorpe (2003)

References...Section 18

It is best therefore to choose the combination of approaches which best suits a city’s circumstances but, having done so, maintain it, and hence the future development of the strategy.