Beyond Assumptions: How humanitarians make operational decisions

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Executive summary

The ability to make good decisions, particularly under difficult circumstances, is fundamental to effective humanitarian response. Despite receiving frequent critique in humanitarian evaluations, there has been relatively little academic study on decision-making in humanitarian response. This research explores the nature of humanitarian contexts, the different types of decisions that they require, and the most suitable approaches to making these decisions at the country or field level. It seeks to identify concrete recommendations for humanitarian organisations and individual decision makers.

This study has used a mixed methods approach combining literature review, an app-based diary method, interviews and questionnaires. Recruited from 8 operational contexts, 55 decision makers began the study and 32 completed it, submitting a total of 1,035 decisions. 42% of participants came from the country in which they were working at the time of the diary study, with 58% being international staff. 60% worked for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), 25.5% for national non-governmental organisations (NNGOs), 7% for the United Nations (UN), 5.5% for national Red Cross Red Crescent (RCRC) societies and 2% for donors. A full method is available in the annex.

There is a great deal of variety in humanitarian decision-making, including the sorts of decisions which get made. Interestingly, only 19% of the decisions submitted in this study were about response options and targeting, with the remainder covering a wide range of decisions from whether to share information with donors and whether to follow procurement procedures to who to hire in a certain role. Operational decision-making is largely social, with 81% of decisions involving consultation or a group process. The length of the decision-making process can vary from under an hour (11%) to more than a month (10%).

Existing literature suggests that humanitarian decisions are largely significant, urgent, uncertain and stressful. This study affirms that decisions taken by operational decision makers do tend to have significant consequences (78%) and are taken under urgent time pressures (80%).
However, only 38% were identified as taking place in uncertain conditions, and only 49% where the future was also uncertain. Decision makers reported feeling stressed at the time of decision-making 47.5% of the time.

The decision-making process starts with the recognition that a decision is required – a step which often gets overlooked. Just 8% of the decisions submitted in the study were proactive, where decision makers recognised or anticipated an emerging situation where a decision was required.
Experienced decision makers, and those faced with familiar circumstances, were more likely to be proactive. Path dependency and tunnel vision, lack of information/clarity about the nature of the problem, lack of time or competing priorities and lack of role clarity all have the potential to exacerbate a ‘reactive mindset’, which puts decision makers at risk of causing delays or failing to make decisions entirely.

Overall for the decision makers in this study, information was more used and more useful for understanding the current situation rather than for considering the efficacy of potential responses. This makes sense given the types of decisions submitted to the study, which were largely those unlikely to require consultation of a formal evidence base (such as decisions about coordination and HR). While decision makers value the use of information, the study found no relationship between increased information collection and the perceived quality of the decision. Given the importance of informing humanitarian response with high-quality evidence in operational decision-making, the findings raise a number of questions: What is understood as evidence? What types of evidence are relevant for different types of decisions? How can research evidence be disseminated so that it is most useful for operational decisions where it can add value?

There are three main decision-making approaches: analytical methods, which aim to identify the best course of action from a range of options; naturalistic methods, which use prior experience to choose a good course of action given the circumstances; and procedural, where decisions are guided by use of organisational procedures and protocols. Regardless of how a decision has been made, communication about the decision is an important step, helping the decision maker to gain support/buy-in. Reflection following the decision helps the decision maker to enhance their future understanding.

The circumstances within which decisions are made influences the quality of those decisions – the more urgent a decision became, the better the perceived quality. Decisions made in situations of less uncertainty were perceived as better than those made in high uncertainty. The more uncertain a decision became, the more likely a decision maker would be to seek additional information, though this didn’t appear to improve the quality of the decision. Stress also had an influence – decisions rated as either high or low stress were more associated with quality than those with medium levels of stress. These factors appear to be responsible for variations in quality between group versus individual decision-making.

The study suggests that, while analytical approaches are preferred by decision makers, overall the quality of these decisions were perceived as marginally lower in comparison to other approaches. There are a number of possible explanations – for example, there may be other factors outside the scope of the study influencing the statistical relationship between decision-making approach and quality. It may be that analytical approaches are being used in circumstances for which they are not suited (such as, where the situation is very urgent and/or uncertain), or that the analytical approaches being used are not strictly ‘textbook’ and lack some elements which, if used, could improve the quality of these decisions, particularly thorough option generation and a clear set of criteria with which to compare options.

Decision makers were less comfortable using their intuition to make decisions – called naturalistic decision-making, or NDM. However, when they did, these decisions were perceived to be of higher quality than those made using an analytical approach. Naturalistic decisions are well-suited to urgent situations familiar to the decision maker. Decision makers should test their assumptions when using NDM to ensure the experience they’re relying in is appropriate to the context, and can use forecasting to help them do this.

In 50% of decisions, procedures were used as written or adapted. Procedures were less likely to exist and be used in situations which were less familiar to the decision maker (suggesting these situations are also less familiar to the organisation). With respect to quality, there was no statistical relationship between those decisions where protocols and procedures were used and those where they were not.

Participants in the study had varying levels of humanitarian experience – with 40% having more than ten years of experience. 76% of decisions were familiar to decision makers, and these familiar decisions were perceived as slightly better quality. Those with more experience tended to encounter unfamiliar situations less frequently. Participants also had variable amounts of experience living in the country where they were working, with 42% national staff and 58% international. Understanding the context has a significant positive influence on decision-making, in particular on NDM.

Having answered questions about the nature of humanitarian decision-making and approaches/conditions which influence the quality of decisions, the study concludes with a number of concrete recommendations including the need to recognise the value of NDM, improving analytical decision-making by following good practice, making a conscious choice about which decision-making approach best fits the situation, making evidence more accessible to decision makers, increasing proactive decision-making, for organisations to support individuals to improve their decision-making, and further work on how to make decisions in uncertain, unfamiliar circumstances where neither analytical, naturalistic or procedural decision-making appears to be particularly effective.