A decision framework driven by the decision makers

Structured Decision Making in environmental management

Managers of the environment are routinely faced with making complex decisions with little information and high levels of uncertainty. It’s a tough ask, but that’s their job. When decisions have to be made regardless of these constraints, structured decision making (often simply referred to as SDM) is a useful tool for guiding managers through the decision process.

It doesn’t guarantee that the ‘right’ choice will be made every time (some people might define ‘right’ as a solution that resolves the problem quickly and cheaply), but structured decision making does ensure that the decisions made will be transparent, logical and defensible (Gregory et al 2012). And decisions that are transparent, logical and defensible are ‘good’ decisions. The SDM framework is also flexible in how it can be applied. It’s applicable to a range of problem types, from decisions relating to specific issues in a local region through to complex decisions involving multiple stakeholders.

SDM refers to a decision framework driven by the objectives, or values, of those involved in the decision-making process. Essentially, the process involves an organized analysis of problems in order to reach decisions that are focused explicitly on achieving fundamental objectives. This is accomplished through 6 steps, used to structure and guide thinking (Runge 2011).

There are many tools and techniques available that can be utilized throughout the framework. Some steps may require external expertise. Others can be effectively implemented by the decision maker(s) without the need for specialist training and expertise (Addison et al 2013, and see Prue’s story “A model solution for good conservation”). In any case, each step of the SDM approach is undertaken formally and cooperatively in order to support defensible decision making.

The six steps involved in structured decision making are outlined over the following pages. How it works in practice is illustrated in four case studies also presented in this story.

 “An emphasis on the development of possible alternatives is a key component that sets SDM apart from other decision assessment methods.”

Several EDG researchers from the University of Melbourne have been collaborating with Parks Victoria to apply SDM to a range of protected area management issues. The first three case studies are based on this work. The problems tackled ranged from a large, resource allocation issue to the management of recreation impacts in a single park (see ‘a camping we will go’).

The fourth case study is a short editorial by a Parks Victoria manager, Tony Varcoe, on the value he sees in SDM for the agency’s planning and decision making. He says up front that: “Parks Victoria needs to make tough decisions about how it will allocate its limited resources.” He acknowledges the benefits of SDM but also points out that SDM is a resource intensive process itself. Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

There are many descriptions available on what constitutes SDM. At its core, however, lie six basic steps.

 Step 1. Articulate the decision context

The first step involves clearly articulating the scope of the problem and the decision to be made. Clarifying the context of the decision involves defining what decision is being made and why, establishing roles and responsibilities (including stakeholders and experts) and identifying time scales, spatial scales and constraints.

Step 2. Define objectives & performance measures

The core of SDM is a well defined set of objectives and associated performance measures. First, the decision needs to be focused around the fundamental objectives. These state the primary reason for the decision, and are the focus of analysis (Runge 2011).

Fundamental objectives are often difficult to define and they may require multiple performance measures. Consequently, other sub-objectives are sometimes necessary to represent the various ways of achieving the fundamental objective (means, strategic or process objectives).

Performance measures in SDM are defined as specific metrics for consistently reporting and estimating the consequences of any decision on the objectives. Good performance measures are clear and concise, unambiguous, understandable, direct and operational (Gregory et al., 2012). This is critical because they define how an objective is to be interpreted and evaluated in the decision context.

Once established, objectives and performance measures form the framework for developing and evaluating alternative courses of action for management.

Step 3. Develop alternatives

This step involves the clear articulation of the various management actions or alternatives relevant to the problem. An emphasis on the development and analysis of possible alternatives in relation to the objectives is a key component that sets SDM apart from other decision assessment methods (Gregory et al 2012).

Alternatives allow decision-makers to compare a range of solutions to the given problem. Within the SDM process, an alternative can be a single management action, or a management scenario that encompasses a range of management actions. Alternatives are explicitly designed to address fundamental objectives, and should be technically sound and clearly defined.

Step 4. Estimate consequences

This step involves a quantitative analysis of the consequences of the management alternatives in relation to the objectives, utilising available knowledge and /or predictive tools. Estimates of consequences can be based on existing data, expert opinion, and conceptual or predictive models.

A consequence table (Gregory et al. 2012) is a useful tool in this step. These tables clearly illustrate the estimates (and uncertainty) of predicted consequences of various alternatives in relation to each measurable objective. It may become evident that a particular alternative is favoured, or should be rejected from further analysis (of trade-offs, Step 5).

Step 5. Multiple objective trade offs

Making a decision about which alternative has the greatest merit requires a decision maker to consider both the consequences of management alternatives, and the values they attribute to the various objectives. These trade-offs are inevitable when decision making involves multiple (and often competing) objectives.

A range of approaches can be utilised within the SDM framework to make trade offs explicit, and based on a thorough understanding of consequences and their significance.

Parks Victoria staff work with researchers from the University of Melbourne to explore a range of management strategies using a structured decision making approach. Together they quantified the consequences of alternative management strategies using expert elicitation and statistical modelling, and incorporating value judgement trade-offs among objectives.

Parks Victoria staff work with researchers from the University of Melbourne to explore a range of management strategies using a structured decision making approach. Together they quantified the consequences of alternative management strategies using expert elicitation and statistical modelling, and incorporating value judgement trade-offs among objectives.

Step 6. Decide and take action

Based on the previous steps, the most favoured alternative can be determined, and resources allocated accordingly. Alternatively, it may be apparent that objectives or actions were missing from the analysis, and the process needs repeating and refining!

Complex decisions are often complex for a good reason, and it may be that several iterations of the process are necessary to ensure a ‘complete’ analysis of the problem.

Another possibility is that a clear decision is difficult given the uncertainty highlighted throughout this process. It may be that an adaptive management approach is warranted. Adaptive management is a form of structured decision making, where monitoring is used to learn about the most effective course of action (Runge 2011).

More info: Kelly Hunt De Bie khun@unimelb.edu.au


Addison PFE, L Rumpff, SS Bau, JM Carey, YE Chee, FC Jarrad, MF McBride & MA Burgman (2013). Practical solutions for making models indispensable in conservation decision-making. Diversity and Distributions 19: 490–502.

Gregory R, L Failing, M Harstone, G Long & T McDaniels (2012). Structured decision making: a practical guide to environmental management choices. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.

Keeney RL (1996). Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decision making. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Runge MC (2011). An Introduction to Adaptive Management for Threatened and Endangered Species. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 2: 220–233.



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