EVALUATION IN THE PLANNING DISCOURSE: ASPECTS and ‘ASPECT TREES’

An effort to clarify the role of deliberative evaluation in the planning and policy-making process.  Thorbjørn Mann,  January 2020

The questions surrounding the task of assembling ‘all’ aspects calling for ‘due consideration’.

 

ASPECTS AND ASPECT TREE DISPLAYS

Once an evaluation effort begins to get serious about its professed aims: of deliberating, making overall judgments a transparent function of partial judgments, of ‘weighing all the pros and cons’, trying not to forget anything significant, to avoid missing things that could lead to ‘unexpected’ adverse consequences of a plan (but that could be anticipated with some care), the people involved will begin to create ‘lists’ of items that ‘should be given due consideration’ before making a decision. One label for these things is ‘aspects’.  Originally meaning just looking at the object (plan) to be decided upon, from different points of view.

A survey of different approaches to evaluation shows that there are many different such labels ‘on the market’ for these ‘things to be given due consideration’. And many of them — especially the many evaluation and problem-solving, systems change consultant brands that compete for commissions to help companies and institutions to cope with their issues — come with very different recommendations for the way this should be done. The question for the effort to develop a general public planning discourse support platform for dealing with projects and challenges that affect people in many governmental and commercial ‘jurisdictions’ — ultimately: ‘global’ challenges — then becomes: How can and should all these differences of the way people talk about these issues be accommodated in a common platform?

Whether a common ground for this can be found — or a way to accommodate all the different perspectives, if a common label can’t be agreed upon — depends upon a scrutiny of the different terms and their procedural implications. This is a significant task in itself, one for which I have not seen much in the way of inquiry and suggestions (other than the ‘brands’ recommendations for adopting ‘their’ terms and approach.) So raising this question might be the beginning of a sizable discussion in itself (or a survey of existing work I haven’t seen). Pending the outcome of such an investigation, many of the issues raised for discussion in this series of evaluation issues will continue to use the term ‘aspect’, with apologies to proponents of other perspectives.

This question of diversity of terminology is only one reason for needed discussion, however. One such reason has to do with the possibility of bias in the very selection of terms, depending on the underlying theory or method, or whether the perspective is focused on some ‘movement’ that by its very nature puts one main aspect at the center of attention (‘competitive strength and growth’; ‘sustainability’, ‘regeneration’; ‘climate change’; ‘globalization’ versus ‘local culture’ etc.) There are many efforts to classify or group aspects — starting with Vitruvius’ three main aspects ‘firmness, convenience and delight’ to the simple ‘cost, benefit, and risk’ grouping, or the recent efforts that encourage participants to explore aspects from different groups of affected or concerned parties, mixed in with concepts such as ‘principles’, best and worst expected outcomes, etc. shown in a ‘canvas’ poster for orientation. Are these efforts encouraging contribution of information from the public, or giving the impression of adequate coverage and inadvertently missing significant aspects? It seems that any classification scheme of aspects is likely to end up neglecting or marginalizing some concerns of affected parties.

Comparatively minor questions are about potential mistakes in applying the related tools: Listing preferred or familiar means of plan implementation as aspects representing goals or concerns, for example; listing the essentially same concern under different labels (and thus weighing it twice…). The issue of functional relationships between different aspects — a main concern of systems views of a problem situation — is one that is often not well represented in the evaluation work tools. A major potential controversy is, of course, the question of who is doing the evaluation, whose concerns are represented, what is the source of information a team will draw upon to assemble the aspect list?

It may be useful to look at the expectations for the vocabulary and its corresponding tools: Is the goal to ensure ‘scientific’ rigor, or to make it easy for lay participants to understand and to contribute to the discussion? To simplify things or to ensure comprehensive coverage? Which vocabulary facilitates further explanation (sub-aspects etc) and ultimately showing how valuation judgments relate to objective criteria — performance measures?

Finally: given the number of different ‘perspectives’ , how should the platform deal with the potential of biased ‘framing’ of discussions by the sequence in which comments are entered and displayed — or is this concern one that should be left to the participants in the process, while the platform itself should be as ‘neutral’ as possible — even with respect to potential bias or distortions?

The ‘aspect tree’ of some approaches refers to the hierarchical ‘tree’ structure emerging in a display of main aspects, each further explained by ‘sub-aspects’, sub-sub-aspects etc. The outermost ‘leaves’ of the aspect tree would be the‘criteria’ or objective performance variables, to which participants might carry their explanations of their judgment basis. (See the later section on criteria and criterion functions.) Is the possibility of doing that a factor in the insistence on the part of some people to ‘base decisions on facts’ — only — thereby eliminating ‘subjective’ judgments that can be explained only by listing more subjective aspects?

An important warning was made by Rittel in discussing ‘Wicked Problems’ long ago: The more different perspectives, explanations of a problem, potential solutions are entered into the discussion, the more aspects will appear claiming ‘due consideration’. The possible consequences of proposed solutions alone extend endlessly into the future. This makes it impossible for a single designer or planner, even a team of problem-solvers, to anticipate them all: the principle of assembling ‘all’ such aspects is practically impossible to meet. This is both a reminder to humbly abstain from claims to comprehensive coverage, and a justification of wide participation on logical (rather than the more common ideological-political) grounds: inviting all potentially affected parties to contribute to the discourse as the best way to get that needed information.

The need for more discussion of this subject, finally, should be shown by the presence of approaches or attitudes that deny the need for evaluation ‘methods’ altogether. This takes different forms, ranging from calls for ‘awareness’ or general adoption of a new ‘paradigm’ or approach — like ‘systems thinking’, holism, relying on ‘swarm’ guidance etc, to more specific approaches like Alexander’s Pattern Language which suggests that using valid patterns (solution elements, not evaluation aspects) to develop plans, will guarantee their validity and quality, thus making evaluation unnecessary.

One source of heuristic guidance to justify ‘stopping rules’ in the effort to assemble evaluation aspects may be seen in the weighting of relative importance given (as subjective judgments by participants) to the different aspects: if the assessment of a given aspect will not make a significant difference in the overall decision because that aspect is given too low a weight, is this a legitimate ‘excuse’ for not giving it a more thorough examination? (A later section will look at the weighting or preference ranking issue).

–o–

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