EVALUATION IN THE PLANNING DISCOURSE — PROCEDURAL AGREEMENTS

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

PROCEDURAL AGREEMENTS FOR EVALUATION

The need for procedural agreements

Any group, team or assembly having decided to embark upon a common evaluation / deliberation task aimed at a recommendation or decision about a plan, will have to adopt a set of agreements about the procedure to be followed, explicitly or implicitly. These rules can become quite detailed and complicated. Even the familiar ‘rules of order’ of standard parliamentary procedure, aiming at simple yea/nay decisions on ‘motions’ for the assembly to accept or reject, will become book-length guides (like ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’) that the chairpersons of such processes may have to consult when disputes arise. For simplified versions based on the expected simplicity of ending the discussions with a majority vote, and citizens’ familiarity with basic rules, agreements can even be tacitly taken for granted, without recourse to written guides. However, this no longer applies when the decision-making body engages in more detailed and systematic deliberation aiming at making the decisions more transparently justified by the evaluative judgments made on the comments in the discourse.

General overall agreements versus procedures for ‘special techniques’

This could be seen as a call for a general procedure that includes the necessary procedural rules, as an extension of the familiar parliamentary procedure. Would such a one-size-fits-all solution be appropriate? As the preceding sections of this study show, we now see not only a great variety of different evaluation tasks and context situations, but also a variety of different ‘approaches’ for such processes now on the ‘market’ — especially as they are assisted by new technology. Each one comes with different assumptions about the rules or ‘procedural agreements’ guiding the process. So it seems that the question is less one of developing and adopting one general-purpose pattern, than one of providing a ‘toolkit’ of different approaches that the participants in a planning process could choose from as the task at hand requires. That opportunity-step for choice must be embedded in a general and flexible overall process, than participants either would be familiar with already, or able to easily learn and agree to.

Once a special technique is selected, as decided by the group, its procedural steps and decision rules should then be explicitly agreed upon at the very beginning of the specific process — the more so, the ‘newer’ the approach, tools and techniques — so as to avoid disruption of the actual deliberation by disagreements about procedure later on. Such quibbles could easily become quite destructive and polarizing, and even their in-process resolution can introduce significant bias into the actual assessment work itself. It may be necessary to change some rules, as the participants learn more about the nature of the problem at hand. That process should be governed by rules set out in the initial agreements: A provision such as the ‘Next step’ proposed in the process for the overall planning discourse platform would offer that opportunity. [See ‘PDSS-REVISED’).

This seemingly matter-of-course step can become controversial because different ‘special techniques’ may involve different concepts and corresponding vocabulary to be used: even ‘systems’ approaches of different ‘generations’ are likely to use different labels for essentially the same things, which can result in miscommunication and misunderstanding or worse. New techniques and tools may require different responsibilities, behavior, decision modes, replacing rules still taken for granted: must new agreements be set ‘upfront’ to prevent later conflicts?

The main agreements — possibly different rules for different project types — then will cover the basic procedural steps, the ‘stopping rules’ for deciding when a decision can be said to have been accepted (since one of the key properties of ‘wicked problems’ is that there is nothing in the nature of the problem itself that tell problem-solvers that a solution has been reached and the the work can stop); decision criteria and modes according to which this should be done. For the details of the evaluation part itself, the kinds of judgments and judgment scales will have to be agreed upon, — so that e.g. a judgment score will have the same meaning for all participants. (These issues will be addressed in separate sections).

An argument can be made that efforts should made to preserve consistency between the overall approach and its frame of reference and vocabulary, and any ‘special techniques’ for evaluation within that process along the way.

Doing without cumbersome procedural rules?

There will be attempts to escape procedures felt to be too ‘cumbersome’ or bureaucratic, with an easier route to a decision. Majority voting itself can be seen as such an escape. Even easier are decision criteria such as ‘consent’ — declared, for example, by the chair that there are ‘no more objections’ combined with ‘time’s up’ — which may indicate that the congregation has become exhausted, rather than convinced of the advantages of a proposed plan, or dissuaded from voicing more ‘critical’ questions. But aren’t the conditions leading to ‘consent’ outcomes in some approaches — group size, seating arrangements, sequences of steps and phases — themselves procedural provisions?

Examples of aspects calling for agreements

Examples of different procedural agreements are the above-mentioned ‘rules of order’, the steps for determining the ‘Benefit/Cost Ratio’ of plans; provisions for ‘formal evaluation’ process of the ‘quality’ of a proposed plan or for the evaluation of a set of alternative proposals; agreements needed for evaluating the plausibility of a plan by systematic assessment of argument plausibility; the guides for a ‘Pattern Language’ approach to planning. (Some of these will be described in separate segments).

The procedural agreements cover aspects such as the following:
– The conceptual frame of reference and its vocabulary and corresponding techniques and displays;
– Proper ‘etiquette’ and behavior
The process steps (sequence), participant rights and responsibilities;
Formatting of entries as needed for evaluation;
– For the evaluation tasks: judgment scales and units, the meaning of the scores;
– The aggregation functions to be used to derive overall judgments from partial judgment scores and from individual participant scores to ‘group’ statistics and decision rules;
– Decision criteria and decision modes;
– The stopping rule(s) for the process.

Specific agreements for different evaluation ‘approaches’ and special techniques must then be discussed in the sections describing those methods.


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