Case study 3: Shaking the status quo

Decision support for a large, multi-faceted resource allocation problem

The available resources of a conservation management agency are typically spread over many ecological values and multiple threats. Management plans guide the manner in which the allocation takes place and these plans are periodically reviewed in order to consider better ways that the available resources might be spread around. But the complexity of the problems being dealt with often mean the reviews don’t achieve much in the way of change. In many instances, the opportunity amounts to a tired regurgitation of previously documented values and assumed threats and the retention of the status quo.

Parks Victoria recently committed to a more in-depth and candid assessment of its allocation of resources through use of structured decision-making. Our case study* is concerned with resources committed under Parks Victoria’s Environmental Land & Water Area of Work in the West Coast District (in other words, resources available for managing the natural values in the Otway’s and surrounds).

The application of SDM in this project provided a framework for thinking critically about a large, multi-faceted resource allocation problem. It relates to navigating and coherently integrating:

(a) cause-and-effect judgments concerning the capacity of alternative strategies to protect natural assets; and

(b) value judgments concerning trade-offs between asset protection, costs, and other relevant considerations.

Experts and stakeholders vary in their judgments of both elements. Variation in cause-and-effect judgments arises from uncertainty in scientific knowledge. Variation in value judgments reflects the priorities and preferences of individuals and organisations. This project integrated both elements in a structured decision-making framework.

The purpose of the project was to develop an efficient structured decision-making process that will enable the development

and ongoing implementation (including ongoing refinement through the practice of adaptive management) of the West Coast Implementation Plan (WCIP) for the Environment, Land & Water Area of Work. The aims of this plan are to:

  • Identify and describe priority assets, threats and management responses;
  • Identify objectives for resource allocation across ecosystems;
  • Prioritise alternative management strategies/actions using a structured decision-making process drawing on available scientific and local knowledge and informed tradeoffs.

Importantly, SDM allowed us to tackle this large, multi-faceted problem by breaking it up into units small enough for people to handle cognitively, allowing them to make sensible judgements. The decision problem included over 100 competing objectives, across seven ecosystems (including marine and terrestrial), dozens of threats, and dozens of possible candidate management actions.

Using both a fixed budget that was broadly consistent with the current allocation, and increased budgets (to around double), we explored a range of management strategies (step 4), by quantifying consequences of those alternative management strategies using  expert elicitation and statistical modelling, and incorporating value judgement trade-offs among objectives (step 5).

In this project, we specifically address whether current resource allocation represents the greatest opportunity for achieving desired conservation outcomes within best current knowledge. The SDM outputs show the candidate strategies that perform best overall, in addressing ecological objectives within resource constraints (step 6).

“The decision problem included over 100 competing objectives, across seven ecosystems (including marine and terrestrial), dozens of threats, and dozens of possible candidate management actions. ”

For some ecosystems, the current management strategy did perform the best; for others it did not. The results indicate there is scope for improvement and better performing alternatives should be considered. The SDM framework allowed us to explore whether more expensive alternatives ranked higher than less expensive alternatives, as well as their comparative cost-effectiveness.

The SDM process has engaged stakeholders, technical experts and decision makers in a deliberative decision process over several days of workshopping (which included multiple one-on-one meetings). Because the knowledge was gained through sharing, there is confidence in the outcomes of the process.

Findings of our project are being used to inform Parks Victoria’s future resource allocations within the West Coast District. We hope to see the SDM framework used more widely in natural resource management, where decision problems are usually of comparable magnitude and complexity to the one described here.

More info: Frith Jarrad frith.jarrad@unimelb.edu.au

*The work discussed here is part of a collaborative project between Parks Victoria and the University of Melbourne, ‘Decision support for effective allocation of natural values management resources’.

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