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Decision science for Puget Sound recovery

Richard Anderson, Ph.D.
Richard Anderson, Ph.D.

As a dedicated group of natural resource managers met for the nth time around a set of tables in the Coupeville, WA rec hall, one participant spoke up plaintively, “But do we really need to rate and rank all these proposed actions in order to move forward?”  The participant was a member of the Island Local Integrating Organization’s (LIO’s) Policy Development Committee (PDC).  Similar groups, consisting of collections of local jurisdictions, tribes, and other partners, have been established throughout the Puget Sound and tasked with articulating and coordinating local priorities for Puget Sound recovery.  Over the course of the summer the Island group had been participating in a process being piloted by the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP), which had the goal of improving approaches to identifying and assessing actions proposed as potential local priorities.  These local priorities, if chosen well, would be highlighted in the Partnership’s Action Agenda, positioning them more favorably to receive the funding needed for implementation.

The phrase “if chosen well” is significant.  Local priorities that are chosen well should have measurable milestones, outputs, and outcomes.  They should have “owners”, entities committed to supporting their implementation and reporting to the Partnership on their progress.  It should be possible to justify or explain why these actions represent the highest priorities for local ecosystem recovery.   They should be relate-able to regional priorities for ecosystem recovery in order to help address the question of the extent to which local and regional priorities are consistent with each other.

The approach being piloted by the Partnership relied on principles and techniques of decision analysis, a scientific approach to decision-making.  In this context decision analysis was being used to organize and structure participant’s thought processes into a coherent whole in such a way as to “choose local priorities well.”  The comments of one participant, identified at the beginning of this article (as well as a number of additional constructive criticisms), reflect that doing this can be hard work and there is certainly room for improvement!  However, a number of benefits of participating in the pilot process have been identified by those who were involved. Island LIO’s local priority actions have improved considerably over their previous version and will be well represented in the 2014 Action Agenda.  This was attested to not only by the LIO, but by external reviewers of the process and its products as well.  The process established a defensible rationale for choosing the final set of local priorities (including the exclusion of some that did not meet identified criteria).  To mention a final example, the process also facilitated collaboration across groups that would normally focus largely on their respective responsibilities, doing this in  a way that focused on the needs of the ecosystem as a whole.  An important next step being proposed for this work is to formalize and disseminate lessons learned to other LIOs throughout the region–in particular, by developing written guidance to choosing local priorities well that is customized for the decision context and available information of each LIO.

Richard Anderson is a research scientist at the Puget Sound Institute at University of Washington Tacoma, where he is using decision analysis to help guide protection and restoration of the Puget Sound.