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April 17, 2006

Sloppy Writing Accompanies Flawed Decision Making: USFS and the Courts

In a recent post I mentioned that Forest Service Chief Bosworth might want to hand out a few hundred copies of two classics on clear and definitive writing. But that alone will not begin to address the problems the Forest Service repeatedly faces in court. Another place to begin might be decision making.

Here are two classics on administrative decision making that might accompany any attempt to correct imprecise writing. Both stress the very public and political nature of administrative decisions:
   A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen. James G. March
    Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Deborah Stone

Both books deal with too-narrow and mistaken problem framing. Stone argues that such mistaken framing derives from what she calls "the rationality project." In "rational decision making" decision makers are supposed to follow these well-defined steps:

  1. Identify objectives.
  2. Identify alternative courses of action for achieving objectives.
  3. Predict the possible consequences of each alternative.
  4. Evaluate the possible consequences of each alternative.
  5. Select the alternative that maximizes the attainment of objectives.

As both books point out, the problem is that in real life—the life of political administrative decision making—nothing works out according to "the rationality project" and decisions are not made that way.

It would be good to spend some time discussing decision making in real world contexts, but such a discussion is not likely in the Forest Service any time soon. Instead we'll see mad-dash attempts to build new systems (e.g. most recently Environmental Management Systems), rework process requirements, and almost anything but taking an in-depth look at agency policy making and decision making.

Posted by Dave on April 17, 2006 at 11:18 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Martin Nie

This is an interesting case, and as the majority opinion states in the conclusion, it seems to represent a more disturbing trend in USFS decision-making. Though the rational comprehensive planning process is central to this story, so is the purpose (and potential revival?) of NEPA, and the role of science in administrative decision making. It seems that a recent batch of Ninth Circuit decisions related to the USFS and NEPA, from post-fire projects to the Tongass Land Management Plan (cumulative impacts), show that the Act can still pack a helluva punch, especially if its purpose and intent (or at least some of its purpose and intent like meaningful public participation) is taken seriously by the Courts. And the 9th Circuit seems to give it this respect, though like other Courts, it reads it as procedural in nature.

Another interesting line of inquiry might result from an even more interesting case. From my perspective, the Ecology Center v. Austin (9th Cir. 2005) case provides an excellent chance to seriously talk about the role of science in administrative decision making. What options and alternatives do we have to the dysfunctional status quo?

And if viewed in a certain light, this case might be used to jump-start all this talk about adaptive management and put it into practice. After all, it took litigation to get ecosystem management off the ground, and so adaptive management might need the same type of push. I don’t know, I might be wrong, but such a conversation here might be very constructive and insightful for those of us outside and inside the agency.

Martin Nie

Martin Nie | Apr 18, 2006 3:14:54 PM

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