Recent EA forum posts have pointed out low momentum in initiatives to improve institutional decision-making (IIDM) relative to other cause areas (e.g. this post). We agree; we see IIDM as an especially important cause area because it can guide governing organizations around the world to understand and react to the subjects of priority cause areas. Small changes at high-impact institutions can amplify and also initiate systemic change.
Over the last year, a small group of us affiliated with EA Netherlands have put together a series of workshops for policymakers in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to introduce analytical frameworks and concepts to improve their decision-making. This work is based on evidence, several rounds of content-based feedback and iterations, and crafted to fit in a framework that would solicit ministry buy-in. In January, we launched a 10-month long ‘Impact Challenge’ at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and are now roughly halfway through. The program guides civil servants in a process to come up with their own solutions for obstacles and challenges they encounter in their work to increase the impact of their organization. At this stage we have secured full funding thanks to co-financing by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the EA Infrastructure Fund to fully execute this pilot at strength. We are looking forward to hopefully show positive results at the end of the year on how this Challenge can contribute to Improving Institutional Decision-Making.
In this post, we want to share what we are doing including some of the core ideas we are delivering, some lessons we have learned, and our future plans.
We started the project with the intent to create and deliver workshops for policy makers in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Since one of our team members works within the MFA, we were able to pitch the idea internally. The core idea was to change the paradigm of decision-making to be more evidence and data-driven, transparent and designed to reduce bias. We started by compiling topics from our own experience and also carried out seven in-depth interviews with civil servants across the MFA, who were selected to have diverse age, experience, and domain backgrounds in hopes of identifying broader themes.
After multiple iterations of drafting, testing, and incorporating feedback from community members and civil servants of the MFA, we decided to organize an ‘Impact Challenge’ at the Ministry in which two workshops we had developed would be incorporated. Civil servants signed up to learn key concepts about increasing policy impact; improving decision-making processes and increasing personal effectiveness. The next step for participants is to start developing their own ideas, inspired by the key concepts of the workshops, on how to increase impact within the Ministry. After 10 months of researching, testing and developing solutions for key challenges in the organization each team presents their proposal after which a judge decides upon the best recommendation.
We developed the key concepts based on our own experiences, reading and based on feedback from EA community members like Max Stauffer (CEO of the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance) and Sophie Dannreuther, who has championed work in HIPE and founder of the Centre for Long-Term Resilience. We also drew from materials that HIPE developed as we had a similar target group and identified analytical tools that would complement these concepts; we thought it would be most impactful to give participants explicit takeaways they could implement in addition to concepts. This was also the result of feedback from the Ministry – to bridge theory and concept. We also proactively engaged relevant teams within the Ministry who were working on achieving the same objectives: increase policy impact and improve decision-making. Two different departments provided guest lectures to participants to share their experience and offer on this topic.
- 5 key questions of Effective Altruism (Doing Good Better - William Macaskill)
- Bias awareness
- Decision-making under uncertainty
- Practical steps for improving personal effectiveness
- Multi-criteria decision-making helps to clarify weightings and scoring, which can reduce analysts’ biases and make decisions more systematic and less heuristic, which also allows the process to be evaluated and improved
Of note is that while we weaved EA concepts throughout the content, we chose to only briefly introduce participants to the EA context. We wanted to focus on the substance of the topics as professional development rather than the philosophical principles underlying them so as to not imply any political or philosophical affiliations (and by extension, biases or perception of advocacy or lobbying). Therefore, we presented this initiative as one of our group, the “Impactmakers”.
With all of the workshops now delivered and being halfway through the project, we wanted to share some of our key learnings. We hope this can be useful for other community members who are interested in IIDM to, for instance, adapt our project for their own contexts.
- Government staff are very enthusiastic about high quality professional development content
- The Ministry was eager to support the idea but more hesitant to dedicate financial support to the project without proof of impact
- Getting the institution on board as a co-sponsor is an important step because it gives shared ownership to the project and more solid commitment to work together to have it succeed
- We already reused the materials for the Dutch Development Bank (FMO) during a workshop for their strategy department
- We have already had interest from other people working in policy or advising governments, e.g. from:
- A PA of parliament member Norway
- German Consultants with government clients
- A Mid career civil servant Estonia
- Other EAs interested in policy or working as external advisor for government from UK, US and France
- Having a strong network inside of the organization helps to build the case, more easily reaching people who can endorse the project and increase diverse participation
- Support for the project may have been successful because the Challenge was also perceived as an employee taking grassroots initiative (in contrast to rather than external organizations lobbying for it)
- People can already learn a lot from simply exchanging experiences
- The workshops included many interactive parts
- We sometimes had to skip content to adapt to the groups’ preference for sharing experiences and ideas
- We received positive feedback on using Appreciative Inquiry - have participants exchange and analyse positive impact experiences
- Developing content is more time-consuming than expected
- Creating tailor-made content requires continuous testing and adapting the content to the audience and creating interactive exercises to deliver experiential learning.
- Providing an opportunity, or mandate, for participants to drive change in their own institution is helpful for them to initiate those changes.
- Good facilitation is very important to ensure inclusive and open discussions as well as to keep track of time management and guide groups into a focused direction.
- Collect data from the beginning of the project to understand the demographics of participants, their ideas for improvement, and to measure the effects of parts of Challenge.
- We had to be very dynamic and adapted to feedback, which meant cutting a lot of the ideas we had.
- Lots of feedback centred around how topics were too complex or we just didn’t have enough presentation time to flush out idea
- Deliver additional sessions to support the teams in developing their solutions
- Translate material to English to share with the EA community
- Continue to measure progress and effectiveness through periodic surveys
We would like to acknowledge that this project is funded by the EA META/Infrastructure Fund of the Centre for Effective Altruism and the time of volunteers in crafting content, translating, and organizing logistics. We also want to thank Max Stauffer and Sophie Dannreuther for all the advice. The core group of this project is composed of the following five individuals; feel free to reach out to us if you have questions or comments!
- Lisa M. Gotoh, Policy Officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Jan-Willem van Putten, former Managing Director, Effectief Altruïsme Nederland / current participant in CE Incubation Program
- Emil N. Iftekhar, PhD Candidate, Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization
- Reijer Knol, QA Engineer, Deloitte
- Jason R. Wang, Policy Advisor, Ministry of Environment and Parks (Government of Alberta in Canada)