Review of decision support tools and their potential application in the management of Australian Marine Parks

The purpose of this report is to provide an appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of a suite of decision-support tools for the kinds of problems encountered by marine park policy-makers and managers.

In organisations around the world, the process by which many decisions are made is unstructured. The most common method of organisational decision-making is through open dialogue in a committee setting. This may be entirely adequate for the many problems that involve small consequences, but it is unlikely to be appropriate where the stakes are high. Even where detailed information and analyses are marshalled to support the committee meeting process, unstructured conversation is prey to the frailties of groupthink, deference to authority, and a bias towards retaining the status quo. Meetings typically exceed the cognitive limits of the human brain. Psychologists have clearly demonstrated that our minds are incapable of processing more than about seven things at any one time. A committee discussion typically involves dozens of things, including issues, alternatives, pros, cons, objectives and criteria.

To the extent that they capture sound logic, formal decision support tools have advantages over unaided decision-making. Apart from buffering against cognitive limitations and negative group dynamics, a documented and traceable protocol will encourage decision-makers to be clear about judgments and assumptions.

Many predictive tools and models, often based on empirical observation, provide partial decision support. They account for the consequences of a set of alternative policies or actions. Formal decision support tools go beyond the empirical estimation of consequences to address the development of creative alternatives for dealing with a problem, wrestling with trade-offs, coping with uncertainty, and identifying optimal solutions for an individual decision-maker or acceptable solutions for multiple co-managers or stakeholders. Specific tools vary in their emphases on these and other elements. This report describes a suite of tools and techniques that structure decision elements in ways that promote improved outcomes consistent with organisational objectives, focusing on management needs for Australian Marine Parks (AMPs).

Through recently released management plans for AMPs, Parks Australia have articulated core objectives and listed key values, pressures and potential actions. Although there is a dearth of information describing many values and pressures in any detail, and the effectiveness of candidate actions in some instances requires further evaluation, Parks Australia is now in a position to begin to utilise the tools and techniques of structured decision-making.

Section 1 of this report is targeted at AMP managers. It is a primer on decision-making in marine parks, highlighting the imperative for decision-making under uncertainty and how to go about it.

Section 2 makes up the bulk of this report. It is a compendium of tools and techniques that can be deployed in two broad classes of decisions:

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