Improving Institutional Decision Making (IIDM) is a promising area of work, yet finding effective levers of action can be daunting. Organizations, especially public ones, have many independent heads that are loosely coordinated and opaque - outsiders can do little but wonder how they work.

On the other hand, we (Juan García, Jaime Sevilla and Ángela María Aristizabal) are having moderate success with our project to understand and in the future suggest improvements to the way in which Spanish institutions approach risk foresight and management. Moreover we believe that the approach we took might be transferable to other countries and contexts.

In this article we outline our approach. We hope this will help other people interested in IIDM kickstart their own projects. We also would appreciate comments and feedback.


In a nutshell, the process has three steps:

  1. Identify relevant organizations and decision-makers
  2. Understand how the organizations make decisions and build a network of contacts
  3. Work together with the decision makers to identify gaps and realize improvements

These steps are not strictly linear, but they give you clear goals to work towards.

In our case, we were interested in leveraging the COVID-19 situation to improve risk management in Spain. For more context on our goals, see this summary. Let’s see how this played out in detail:
 

Step 1: Identify relevant organizations and decision-makers

We started by making a spreadsheet of public, national organizations in Spain related to risk management. We checked the organogram of every department of the Spanish government, and investigated the suborganizations that seemed relevant. 

We found it helpful to work on this together by sharing small updates regarding what we learned about each organization as we went through the list. We set up a weekly call as the project started taking shape for brainstorming and co-working.

By the end of the process we had a list of 66 public organizations working on topics related to risk management. We pruned this list down to 6 organizations that seemed especially relevant for our interests.

In hindsight, it would have been useful to write a post at this stage with our findings. We might do this at some point in the future.
 

Step 2: Understand how the organizations make decisions and build a network of contacts

Having identified the organizations we wanted to work with, we proceeded to contact them.

Our goal was to build a working understanding of how these organizations prioritize and manage risks. We wanted to create outputs that would help us and other researchers ramp up their understanding up to a point where they could contribute to identify possible improvements.

We shared our goals with the organizations and asked them for interviews with their technicians and directives. We explained to them that the interviews would serve as the basis for an upcoming article about risk management in Spain.

This initiative to reach out was met with success. Some organizations did not initially respond, but one did, allowing us to leverage this initial contact to get interviews with other organizations we had not initially been able to talk to.

It might have been important that one of us had ties to a prestigious institution (University of Cambridge) to get people more willing to listen and work with us. Regardless, people seemed generally happy to talk about their work and to collaborate. If you start a project like this on your topic of interest, we suggest contacting multiple people in different organizations to increase  the chances that at least one of them replies. We also suggest using multiple sources to find contacts, such as LinkedIn, official websites and email introductions.

As a result of this process we wrote an article about the inner workings of the Civil Protection System in Spain, and we are on track towards writing a second article about risk management in Spain more broadly.

More importantly, we now have a network of connections to public management officials in Spain, who are glad to answer our questions and to collaborate with us. We have also been invited to official events.
 

Step 3: Work together with the decision-makers to identify and realize improvements

After one of our interviews we were invited to collaborate with the Madrid City Hall government on their update of their emergency management plan. 

We are in the process of signing a collaboration agreement, and we are organizing a workshop with public officials and researchers. Our idea is to use this workshop as an opportunity to start a discussion about how to adopt more proactive practices in risk management - a key point of improvement we identified during our interviews and that has recently been featured in a major news outlet.

During this workshop we would create an environment to discuss a few concrete proposals of improvement - including a plan to create a regular assessment of new risks and a plan to mitigate disruptions to the food chain. We hope that participants will help us channel these proposals in productive ways, consistent with the current government operation.

It is still early to tell whether this is the right approach, but so far it has been met with enthusiasm by other researchers.


This approach - identifying organizations to work with, interviewing them and then doing workshops with them - seems to have worked well so far. Our naive guess is that people in other countries who want to work on similar projects might see success following this recipe.

More generally, the approach of identifying key decision-makers, understanding their decision-making processes and collaborating to improve them might translate well to other contexts.

If you are interested in this line of work, please do get in touch. We will be happy to help you start your project and build towards a career in the field.

If you are interested in helping us improve risk management in Spain and Latin America, also reach out. We are interested in meeting people who want to work on these issues part or full time.

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