Five Reasons Why Infrastructure Sustainability Assessments Fail to Manage Community Risk #4

This is the fourth in a series of five posts exploring common community engagement failures in infrastructure planning. It follows on from an introduction of the potential benefits and shortcomings of Multicriteria Analysis (MCA), the need to focus on issues material to affected communities, and how world view biases are a pitfall in translating community values into operational decision-making criteria. This post considers risk from bias in evaluating the performance of options against criteria.

Reason #4: Failure to account for bias in the performance assessment of options

With criteria agreed that accurately reflect community values, an evaluation of the performance of each development option (or sub-option) can be made. Social scientists are familiar with scales (ordinal, cardinal, natural, constructed, normalisation and standardisation) and can be useful in designing an accurate and mathematically robust option evaluation process.

Group process skills are also useful when facilitating refinement of option or the collective evaluation of options by avoiding the introduction of biases. Some common biasing pitfalls seen when developing project design alternatives are:

AnchoringStarting from the status quo, the first proposed alternative (the so-called ‘alpha argument’) or basing alternatives on similar solutions in similar jurisdictions, and then making small tweaks inhibits innovation. Similarly, making a public commitment means were less likely to change our stance on a matter.
PassvityThere are hard and soft constraints and this pitfall is where a constraint that could or should be removed are instead maintained and consequently limits the solution set that can be considered in the MCA

Sunk costs

A bete noir of economists, historic costs are just that: history. Money already spent that cannot be recouped should not be relevant to deciding a forward course of action. But given there can be professional embarrassment or political credibility issues, we see good money chasing bad in an attempt to extract value from an underperforming asset or rescue a white elephant.
Avoiding trade-offsAvoiding difficult values-based choices by not presenting a controversial alternative, trying to eliminate the option too soon, or developing a single recommendation and trying to get everyone to buy-in to it.
Hyperbolic discountingWe have a strong preference for immediate or near future payoffs over later ones. Good facilitation practice should ensure the group consider the time-differentiated impact of various alternatives and give thought to how these are accommodated in the assessment.
RelativityPeople make judgements relatively vs absolutely. What other jurisdictions are doing / getting funded can unduly influence what is required in the present context.
Value perceptionsPrice can be an important signal for demand and high cost can be used as a proxy for high quality to the uninformed purchaser. Similarly, project engineers have been accused of ‘gold-plating’ infrastructure design beyond what a reasonable analysis of needs would indicate.
Diminishing returnsMCA is flexible in that it allows new options to be introduced and assessed. Stakeholder-responsive iterations in design are to be encouraged but only to a point. Knowing when to quit is a virtue and comes when the incremental benefits are not worth the additional effort and are unlikely to be material to the choice of option. That’s what a detailed design phase is for.

Key point #4:

Beware of collective biases in developing project alternatives. The weighting procedures in MCA processes can help to deal explicitly with differing world views. But these differences can also emerge in the processes of developing options and if not challenged by an objective facilitator, can result in negative effects on the most vulnerable people in the community.