EVALUATION IN THE PLANNING DISCOURSE — SYSTEMS THINKING, MODELING AND EVALUATION IN PLANNING

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

SYSTEMS THINKING / MODELING AND EVALUATION IN PLANNING

 

Evaluation and Systems in Planning  — Overview

The contribution of systems perspective and tools to planning.

In just about any discourse about improving approaches to planning and policy-making, there will be claims containing reference to ‘systems’: ‘systems thinking’, ‘systems modeling and simulation’, the need to understand ‘the whole system’, the counterintuitive behavior of systems. Systems thinking as a whole mental framework is described as ‘humanity’s currently best tool for dealing with its problems and challenges. There are by now so many variations, sub-disciplines, approaches and techniques, even definitions of systems and systems approaches on the academic as well as the consulting market, that even a cursory description of this field would become a book-length project.

The focus here is the much narrower issue of the relationship between this ‘systems perspective’ and various evaluation tasks in the planning discourse. This sketch will necessarily be quite general, not doing adequate justice to many specific ‘brands’ of systems theory and practice. However, looking at the subject from the planning / evaluation perspective will identify some significant issues that call for more discussion.

Evaluation judgments at many stages of systems projects and planning

A survey of many ‘systems’ contributions reveals that ‘evaluation’ judgments are made at many stages of projects claiming to take a systems view – like the finding that evaluation takes place at the various stages of planning projects whether explicitly guided by systems views or not. Those judgments are often not even acknowledged as ‘evaluation’, and done by very different patterns of evaluation (as described in the sections exploring the variety of evaluation judgment types and procedures.)

The similar aims of systems thinking and evaluation in planning

Systems practitioners feel that their work contributes well (or ‘better’ than other approaches) to the general aims of planning: such as
– to understand the ‘problem’ that initiates planning efforts;
– to understand the ‘system’ affected by the problem, as well as
– the larger ‘context’ or ‘environment’ system of the project;
– to understand the relationships between the components and agents, especially the ‘loops’ of such relationships that generates the often counterintuitive and complex systems behavior;
– to understand and predict the effects (costs, benefits, risks) and performance of proposed interventions in those systems (‘solution’) over time; both ‘desired’ outcomes and potentially ‘undesirable’ or even unexpected side-and after-effects;
– to help planners develop ‘good’ plan proposals,
– and to reach recommendations and/or decisions about plan proposals that are based on due consideration of all concerns for parties affected by the problem and proposed solutions, and of the merit of ‘all’ the information, contributions, insights and understanding brought into the process.
– To the extent that those decisions and their rationale must be communicated to the community for acceptance, these investigations and judgment processes should be represented in transparent, accountable form.

Judgment in early versus late stages of the process

Looking at these aims, it seems that ‘systems-guided’ projects tend to focus on the ‘early’ information (data) -gathering and ‘understanding’ aspects of planning – more than on the decision-making activities. These ‘early’ activities do involve judgment of many kinds, aiming at understanding ‘reality’ based on the gathering and analysis of facts and data. The validity of these judgments is drawn from standards of what may loosely be called ‘scientific method’ – proper observation, measurement, statistical analysis. There is no doubt that systems modeling, looking at the components of the ‘whole’ system, and the relationships between them, and the development of simulation techniques have greatly improved the degree of understanding both of the problems and the context that generates them, as well as the prediction of proposed effects (performance) of interventions: of ‘solutions’. Less attention seems to be given to the evaluation processes leading up to decisions in the later stages. Some justifications, guiding attitudes, can be distinguished to explain this:

Solution quality versus procedure based legitimatization on of decisions

One attitude, building on the ‘scientific method’ tools applied in the data-gathering and model-building phases, aims at finding ‘optimal’ (ideally, or at least ‘satisficing’) solutions described by performance measures from the models. Sophisticated computer-assisted models and simulations are used to do this; the performance measures (that must be quantifiable, to be calculated) derived from ‘client’ goal statements or from surveys of affected populations, interpreted by the model-building consultants: experts. One the one hand, their expert status is then used to assert validity of results. But on the other hand, increasingly criticized for the lack of transparency to the lay populations affected by problems and plans: questioning the experts’ legitimacy to make judgments ‘on behalf of’ affected parties. If there are differences of opinions, conflicts about model assumptions, these are ‘settled’ – must be settled – by the model builders in order for the programs to yield consistent results.

This practice (that Rittel and other critics called ‘first generation systems approach’) was seen as a superior alternative to traditional ways of generating planning decisions: the discussions in assemblies of people or their representatives, characterized by raising questions and debating the ‘pros and cons’ of proposed solutions – but then making decisions by majority voting or accepting the decisions of designated or self-designated leaders. Both of these decision modes obviously are not meeting all of the postulated expectations in the list above: voting implies dominance of interests of the ‘majority’ and potential disregard on the concerns of the minority; leader’s decisions could lack transparency (much like expert advice) leading to public distrust of the leader’s claim of having given due consideration to ‘all’ concerns affecting people.

There were then some efforts to develop procedures (e.g. formal evaluation procedures) or tools such as the widely used but also widely criticized ‘Benefit-Cost’ analysis tried to extend the ‘calculation based’ development of valid performance measures into the stage of criteria based on the assessment of solution quality to guide decisions. These were not equally widely adopted, for various reasons such as the complicated and burdensome procedures, again requiring experts to facilitate the process but arguably making public participation more difficult. A different path is the tendency to make basic ‘quality’ considerations ‘mandatory’ as regulations and laws, or ‘best practice’ standard. Apart from tending to set ‘minimum’ quality levels as requirement e.g. for building permits, this represents a movement to combine or entirely replace quality-based planning decision-making with decisions that draw their legitimacy from having been generated and following procedures.

This trend is visible both in approaches that specify procedures to generate solutions by using ‘valid’ solution components or features postulated by a theory (or laws): having followed those steps then validates the solution generated removes the necessity to carry out any complicated evaluation procedure. An example of this is Alexander’s ‘Pattern Language’ – though the ‘systems’ aspect is not as prevalent in that approach. Interestingly, that same stratagem is visible in movements that focus on processes aimed at mindsets of groups participating in special events, ‘increasing awareness’ of the nature and complexity of the ‘whole system’ but then rely on solutions ‘emerging’ from the resulting greater awareness and understanding that aim at consensus acceptance in the group for the results generated, that then do not need further examination by more systematic, quantity-focused deliberation procedures. The invoked ‘whole system’ consideration, together with a claimed scientific understanding of the true reality of the situation calling for planning intervention is a part of inducing that acceptance and legitimacy. A telltale feature of these approaches is that debate, argument, and the reasoning scrutiny of supporting evidence involving opposing opinions tends to be avoided or ‘screened out’ in the procedures generating collective ‘swarm’ consensus.

The controversy surrounding the role of ‘subjective’, feeling-based, intuitive judgments versus ‘objective’ measurable, scientific facts (not just opinions) as the proper basis for planning decisions also affects the role of systems thinking contributions to the planning process.

None of the ‘systems’ issues related to evaluation in the planning process can be considered ‘settled’ and needing no further discussion. The very basic ‘systems’ diagrams and models of planning may need to be revised and expanded to address the role and significance of evaluation, as well as argumentation, the assessment of the merit of arguments and other contributions to the discourse, and the development of better decision modes for collective planning decision-making.

–o–

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