State agency executives face complex management and policy-making challenges. These require the interpretation of a broad array of facts, the integration of various stakeholders' perspectives, and the resolution of competing values. Complications arise from pressures to meet deadlines, demands for accountability, appeals for more creative solutions, and calls for more information. These conditions place enormous stress on decision-making processes. To help executives in New York State government solve public policy problems and make critical decisions, the Decision Techtronics Group at the Rockefeller Institute of Government developed its decision conferencing approach using computer-based simulation and decision modeling techniques.
The Decision Techtronics Group conducts "decision conferences" at the request of state agency executives. A decision conference is an intensive, computer-supported meeting, usually two days long. All of the participants are individuals with a substantial stake in solving a pressing organizational problem or state policy issue. A decision conference offers a group an opportunity to develop a shared understanding of the problem and to create a clear plan of action. These stakeholders, typically 12 to 25 agency executives and other key representatives, use an electronic meeting system incorporating computer technology, analytical decision modeling, and group facilitation to explore the problem and reach consensus on a plan of action.
The central feature of decision conferencing is the on-the-spot development of a computer-based decision model. This model is developed by the participants to incorporate their differing perspectives and priorities and allows interactive analysis of options and assumptions. A second distinguishing feature of decision conferencing is the extensive support provided by a team of three or more highly skilled conference facilitators. These professionals fill specific roles during the meeting: the primary facilitator, the decision analyst, and the correspondent. The primary facilitator works directly with the participants and takes responsibility for the interaction process by focusing discussion, managing conflict, and enhancing the pattern of communication. The decision analyst, seated to the side of the group, constructs the decision model in the microcomputer as the discussion unfolds and periodically provides the group with feedback from the analysis using large screen computer projection. The correspondent monitors this process, electronically recording the important details of the group's discussion. Thorough documentation of the deliberation is available at any time during the meeting and as a printed report by conference end.
The successful integration of analytical methods and group process techniques in strategic decision-making meetings is this program’s central achievement. Successful model building requires a marriage between two pools of expertise: issue-oriented decision makers, and technique-oriented model builders and facilitators. The decision makers have to be able to adapt the problem to the terms of the model, and the modelers have to be able to adapt the model in light of the problem. This integration has been brought to bear on a number of critical policy and planning issues. For example, and through decision conferencing, the Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse was able to draw on the experience and knowledge of service providers, policy makers, and insurance representatives to create new types of treatment programs, reorganize the delivery system, and develop a five-year plan for meeting alcoholism treatment needs across the state. The new system is described in the division's report, “Five-Year Comprehensive Plan for Alcoholism Services in New York State 1984-1989: 1987 Update.” The Governor's Office of Employee Relations, in conjunction with the Public Employees Federation, has also used decision conferencing to design training curricula for the $3.6 million Public Service Training Program.