A decision framework driven by the decision makers: Structured Decision Making in environmental management

By Kelly Hunt de Bie and Libby Rumpff (This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of Decision Point, The Monthly Magazine of the Environmental Decisions Group)

Managers of the environment are routinely faced with making complex decisions with little information and high levels of uncertainty. It’s a tough ask, but that’s their job. When decisions have to be made regardless of these constraints, structured decision making (often simply referred to as SDM) is a useful tool for guiding managers through the decision process.

It doesn’t guarantee that the ‘right’ choice will be made every time (some people might define ‘right’ as a solution that resolves the problem quickly and cheaply), but structured decision making does ensure that the decisions made will be transparent, logical and defensible (Gregory et al 2012). And decisions that are transparent, logical and defensible are ‘good’ decisions. The SDM framework is also flexible in how it can be applied. It’s applicable to a range of problem types, from decisions relating to specific issues in a local region through to complex decisions involving multiple stakeholders.

“An emphasis on the development of possible alternatives is a key component that sets SDM apart from other decision assessments methods”

SDM refers to a decision framework driven by the objectives, or values, of those involved in the decision-making process. Essentially, the process involves an organized analysis of problems in order to reach decisions that are focused explicitly on achieving fundamental objectives. This is accomplished through six steps, used to structure and guide thinking (Runge 2011).

There are many tools and techniques available that can be utilized throughout the framework. Some steps may require external expertise. Others can be effectively implemented by the decision maker(s) without the need for specialist training and expertise (Addison et al 2013, and see Decision Point October 2013 page 4 ‘A model solution for good conservation’). In any case, each step of the SDM approach is undertaken formally and cooperatively in order to support defensible decision making.

A Case Study: A camping we will go

SDM to inform management of recreational impacts on a national park

National parks in Victoria are established with the twin aims of conserving environmental assets while also providing quality, sustainable recreational experiences. But what if the recreational experiences result in the trashing of the environmental assets? Activities of visitors can have significant negative impacts on the natural values of parks, both at the site and landscape scale.

The marked increase in nature tourism over the last 20 years has meant that managers are increasingly challenged in finding the right balance between enabling recreation and ensuring conservation. Structured decision making (SDM) provides a useful framework for guiding decisions about the management of visitors and their associated environmental impacts. It provides a formalised approach to identifying objectives regarding the provision of recreation and prioritising management strategies based on informed trade-offs.

In this case study, we applied an SDM framework to explore possible management approaches in response to the proliferation of bush camping in the Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park. The Grampians is one of Victoria’s premier nature-based tourism destinations. It’ receives just over a million visits per year. The park offers a range of camping opportunities, with large serviced campgrounds, commercial camping operations and dispersed, unserviced bush camps.

Historically, bush campsites were developed by campers. They involved minimal planning, and received little consideration in their placement in terms of their impact on environmental or cultural values. Around 273 individual campsites have now been identified throughout the park, and concerns have been raised about their decreasing condition and proliferation.

The growing number of unplanned bush campsites in the park was identified by park managers as potentially resulting in negative ecological impacts – such as soil erosion and vegetation loss – as well as creating logistical issues relating to on-ground management and visitor safety.

We used an SDM framework in a workshop setting involving both decision makers and on ground parks staff from Parks Victoria. During the problem framing (step 1), it was established that Parks Victoria want to continue to provide a bush camping experience at the Grampians National Park. However, this activity needs to be practiced in an ecologically and logistically sustainable manner.

Objectives (step 2) were then developed that covered minimising ecological impacts, maximising visitor safety and satisfaction, and reducing total cost (both staff time and dollars).

The alternative management strategies (step 3) involved combinations of camp site maintenance, closure, and relocation as well as maintaining the status quo.

Estimates of the consequences of management alternatives on the management objectives were elicited (step 4) and a multi-method approach was used to quantify the trade-offs (step 5). This resulted in decision scores that could be used to compare the performance of the various management strategies.

For this case study, the SDM process could be further used to include views of relevant stakeholders, such as user groups and tour operators.

We propose that SDM is a useful tool for facilitating the development of visitor management and monitoring problems in protected areas. This approach has some advantages over traditional decision frameworks commonly used in visitor management, through formulation of objective hierarchies and the ability to incorporate uncertainty. It’s also handy for developing objectives for temporally and spatially explicit issues that arise but are not covered by strategic park level objectives (as outlined in management plans).

There are many descriptions available on what constitutes SDM. At its core, however, lie six basic steps:

Step 1. Articulate the decision context

The first step involves clearly articulating the scope of the problem and the decision to be made. Clarifying the context of the decision involves defining what decision is being made and why, establishing roles and responsibilities (including stakeholders and experts) and identifying time scales, spatial scales and constraints.

Step 2. Define objectives & performance measures

The core of SDM is a well defined set of objectives and associated performance measures. First, the decision needs to be focused around the fundamental objectives. These state the primary reason for the decision, and are the focus of analysis (Runge 2011).

Fundamental objectives are often difficult to define and they may require multiple performance measures. Consequently, other sub- objectives are sometimes necessary to represent the various ways of achieving the fundamental objective (means, strategic or process objectives).

Performance measures in SDM are defined as specific metrics for consistently reporting and estimating the consequences of any decision on the objectives. Good performance measures are clear and concise, unambiguous, understandable, direct and operational (Gregory et al., 2012). This is critical because they define how an objective is to be interpreted and evaluated in the decision context.

Once established, objectives and performance measures form the framework for developing and evaluating alternative courses of action for management.

Step 3. Develop alternatives

This step involves the clear articulation of the various management actions or alternatives relevant to the problem. An emphasis on the development and analysis of possible alternatives in relation to the objectives is a key component that sets SDM apart from other decision assessment methods (Gregory et al 2012).

Alternatives allow decision-makers to compare a range of solutions to the given problem. Within the SDM process, an alternative can be a single management action, or a management scenario that encompasses a range of management actions. Alternatives are explicitly designed to address fundamental objectives, and should be technically sound and clearly defined.

Step 4. Estimate consequences

This step involves a quantitative analysis of the consequences of the management alternatives in relation to the objectives, utilising available knowledge and /or predictive tools. Estimates of consequences can be based on existing data, expert opinion, and conceptual or predictive models.

A consequence table (Gregory et al. 2012) is a useful tool in this step. These tables clearly illustrate the estimates (and uncertainty) of predicted consequences of various alternatives in relation to each measurable objective. It may become evident that a particular alternative is favoured, or should be rejected from further analysis (of trade-offs, Step 5).

Step 5. Multiple objective trade offs

Making a decision about which alternative has the greatest merit requires a decision maker to consider both the consequences of management alternatives, and the values they attribute to the various objectives. These trade-offs are inevitable when decision making involves multiple (and often competing) objectives.

A range of approaches can be utilised within the SDM framework to make trade offs explicit, and based on a thorough understanding of consequences and their significance.

Step 6. Decide and take action

Based on the previous steps, the most favoured alternative can be determined, and resources allocated accordingly. Alternatively, it may be apparent that objectives or actions were missing from the analysis, and the process needs repeating and refining!

Complex decisions are often complex for a good reason, and it may be that several iterations of the process are necessary to ensure a ‘complete’ analysis of the problem.

Another possibility is that a clear decision is difficult given the uncertainty highlighted throughout this process. It may be that an adaptive management approach is warranted. Adaptive management is a form of structured decision making, where monitoring is used to learn about the most effective course of action (Runge 2011).


Addison PFE, L Rumpff, SS Bau, JM Carey, YE Chee, FC Jarrad, MF McBride & MA Burgman (2013). Practical solutions for making models indispensable in conservation decision-making. Diversity and Distributions 19: 490–502.

Gregory R, L Failing, M Harstone, G Long & T McDaniels (2012). Structured decision making: a practical guide to environmental management choices. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.

Runge MC (2011). An Introduction to Adaptive Management for Threatened and Endangered Species. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 2: 220–233.

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