Improving Institutional Decision-Making: a new working group
post by IanDavidMoss
, Vicky Clayton (email@example.com)
What is improving institutional decision-making?
within and outside of EA
Key initiatives for 2021
Most Important Institutions in the World
Works” in Institutional Decision-Making
Research Agenda for IIDM
Engagement and Development
How you can help
About the authors
By Ian David Moss, Vicky Clayton and Laura Green
- This post describes recent and planned efforts to develop improving institutional decision-making (IIDM) as a cause area within and beyond the effective altruism movement.
- Despite increasing interest in the topic over the past several years, IIDM remains underexplored compared to “classic” EA cause areas such as AI safety and animal welfare.
- To help address some questions that have come up in our community-building work, we provide a working definition of IIDM, emphasizing its interdisciplinary nature and potential to bring together insights across professional, industry, and geographic boundaries.
- We also describe a new meta initiative aiming to disentangle and make intellectual progress on IIDM over the next year. The initiative includes several research and community development projects intended to enable more confident funding recommendations and career guidance going forward.
- You can get involved by volunteering to work on our projects, helping us secure funding, or giving us feedback on our plans.
In 2017, 80,000 Hours published Jess Whittlestone’s problem profile on the topic of improving institutional decision-making (IIDM), which deemed the cause area “among the most pressing problems to work on” and suggested that “improving the quality of decision-making in important institutions could improve our ability to solve almost all other problems.” In the years since, we’ve seen signs of steadily increasing interest in IIDM [? · GW] within the EA community: IIDM-related talks, meetups and discussion channels have been included at most recent EA Global conferences, and a Facebook group founded to centralize discussion on the topic now has nearly 900 members. Today, 80,000 Hours continues to list IIDM among its priority problem areas and names “Building capacity to explore and solve problems,” a broad category that includes IIDM, as one of its top two overall priorities for career paths.
Still, IIDM remains underexplored compared to “classic” EA cause areas such as AI safety and animal welfare. Up until now, there has not been a formal, globally focused umbrella organization dedicated to IIDM within the effective altruism ecosystem, leaving a gap of coordination in the field. There are legitimate questions about the effectiveness and tractability of interventions in the space that need to be resolved in order to be able to direct donations or career tracks with confidence. And we know from conversations with others in the EA community that IIDM’s interdisciplinary nature can make the cause area feel fuzzy or overly broad to some.
For these reasons, the three of us are stepping up to act as a focal point for people interested in “disentangling [EA · GW]” and making intellectual progress on IIDM in 2021. This work grows out of a year’s worth of informal exploration that has taken place since the first official IIDM meetup at EAG London 2019. In this article, we’ll share our working definition of IIDM and some key points from our recently developed operational plan.
What is improving institutional decision-making?
Decision-making at major institutions is shaped by a complex web of individual judgments, value systems, organizational structures and routines, leadership behaviors, incentives, social influences, and external conditions. As such, it’s worth taking a moment to define and explain what we mean by “improving institutional decision-making” a little more clearly.
Let’s focus first on the “decision-making” part. The classic decision problems taught in economics textbooks describe fairly straightforward analytical problems: given two or more mutually exclusive options, compare their costs and benefits and select the one that has the highest expected value. In practice, however, and especially in an institutional context, decision-making is rarely this simple. Theoretical work by decision professionals over the past half-century has yielded a useful framework for the concept of “decision quality” featuring the following six components:
- Framing the decision: are we clear about the actual decision that needs to be made at this time?
- Defining goals and values: what is this decision optimizing for, and how should we weigh competing goals against each other?
- Generating options: what are the possible actions we could take, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each of those options?
- Gathering information: what evidence is relevant to this decision and has the potential to change our minds about the best way forward?
- Sound reasoning: how should we integrate all of the various considerations together into a coherent, holistic judgment about what to do next?
- Commitment to action: once the decision is made, can we expect that it will be fully implemented?
In practice, organizational decision-making is more complicated than this because many important decisions unfold implicitly within or across groups of stakeholders, often without awareness or acknowledgement that there is any decision being made.
Understanding the decision-making process itself more clearly helps us identify different levers for “improving” it. From an EA perspective, quality improvement can take place along several dimensions, such as:
- Increasing clarity and shared awareness of the landscape of decisions to be made and who is responsible for making them
- Making better choices about which decisions to prioritize (“deciding what to decide”)
- Improving the accuracy of institutions’ judgments and predictions
- Improving the range and promise of the options under consideration
- Bringing institutions’ goals and values into greater alignment with effective altruist values
- Ensuring that new institutions incorporate design principles that promote high-quality decisions
- Shifting the environment in which an institution operates in ways that are likely to be beneficial to decision quality, e.g. by improving political incentives, regulatory expectations, or leadership selection processes
One of our priorities over the next year, as we’ll describe further below, will be to assess what existing research tells us about the general effectiveness of different decision-making interventions as well as what the greatest barriers to good decision-making seem to be in practice. Ultimately, we anticipate that efforts to improve decision-making at institutions will need to be tailored to the institution in question, using something like the COM-B model of behavioral change to develop a strategy that’s fit for purpose.
Finally, what do we mean by “institutions”? In her problem profile for 80,000 Hours, Whittlestone writes, “We think that improving the decision-making competence of key institutions may be particularly crucial, as the risks we face as a society are rapidly growing.” The article doesn’t indicate what is meant by “key institutions,” but we think that this is an important ambiguity to resolve. As a first step toward a working definition, we consider key institutions to be centrally managed bodies of one or more people in a direct position to allocate disproportionate funds and/or set rules, incentives, and norms affecting the lives of many. Over the next year, we intend to quantify this definition further and launch an inquiry into what specific institutions in the world fall most clearly under this umbrella.
To sum up, then, “improving institutional decision-making” is about increasing both the technical quality and EA alignment of the most important decisions made by the world’s most important decision-making bodies. It is closely related to the project of effective altruism itself, but rather than focusing on making the world better through the promulgation of specific applied ideas (like ending factory farming), which may involve some IIDM as a means to an end, or recruiting specific people to the cause and advancing their careers, it emphasizes building sustained capacity to make high-quality and well-aligned decisions within powerful institutions themselves.
It’s important to emphasize that this definition is merely a starting point for our work. We received useful critical feedback on it prior to publication from several people working on IIDM-related initiatives in the EA community, some of which we’ve incorporated into the version you see here. Some important questions that remain open for us include how much to concern ourselves with ecosystems of interacting institutions in addition to dynamics within institutions; whether decentralized decision-making bodies such as legislatures and parliaments should be within our scope; and how far upstream of the decision-making process itself our scope extends. Our hope is that the disentanglement research yielded by the projects described below will help us come up with more precise and actionable ways of breaking down the challenges of IIDM.
IIDM within and outside of EA
While there is no organization at this time in the EA universe with the explicit mission of coordinating the IIDM community, there are several organizations and initiatives doing IIDM-related work that have strong EA roots. These include the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations, the Geneva Science-Policy Interface, the Quantified Uncertainty Research Institute, Czech Priorities, and IDinsight, among others. (If you run an IIDM-related initiative and are not already in contact with us, please get in touch!)
In the broader working world, "IIDM-like" initiatives and scholarship exist under many different names, including decision analysis, organizational behavior, operations research, management science, strategic learning, policy analysis, change management, knowledge management, and more. Each of these schools of thought and communities of practice have distinct intellectual histories which strongly shape their present-day spheres of influence. For example, "organizational behavior" are two words that rarely appear together outside of a university setting, while "strategic learning" is primarily a term of art among large staffed private foundations. Because of divergent socio-historical roots like these, key institutions in different fields and geographies frequently use different language and frameworks to describe similar phenomena, and miss out on theoretical and scientific advances achieved in parallel contexts.
The fact that “improving institutional decision-making” is not a widely used term outside of the EA community presents us with both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, operating under a neologism might cause confusion in initial interactions with potential stakeholders due to its unfamiliarity. On the other hand, doing so frees both our growing community of interest and effective altruism in general to reach across disciplines, sectors, continents, and cultures in our efforts to improve the functioning of the world's most important deliberative bodies. By treating IIDM as a meta-term that includes or relates to language that’s more familiar to our target audiences, our community can function as a kind of global connective tissue between IIDM-related initiatives and actors across boundaries that might not otherwise be bridged.
Key initiatives for 2021
Our operational plan for the coming year encompasses several projects that fit under two general categories: i) research and ii) development of the IIDM community. At present, we are an all-volunteer team, although we see acquiring funding as a tractable way to lift some constraints on our rate of progress.
The Most Important Institutions in the World
Our first research project will explore the optimal “target audiences” for IIDM-related efforts. While we come to this work with some initial intuitions about what kinds of institutions have outsized importance for world outcomes (large governments, foundations, multilateral agencies, etc.), we want to develop a more formal rubric for evaluating and ranking the potential for engaging productively with specific institutions. Open questions include: How do we become aware of candidate key institutions? How should we measure and compare the different types of influence (funds, norms etc) an institution can have? How do we weigh how much influence the institution has against how tractable it will be to influence its decision-making processes? How do we work with (or around) the constraints it might face? (To support our work on this project, we plan to assemble an advisory team of individuals with deep knowledge of or direct experience working in a wide range of institutions around the globe; if you feel you have such expertise and would like to be involved, please see the “How you can help” section below).
“What Works” in Institutional Decision-Making
Once we’ve identified and begun to prioritize key institutions, we will need to determine how we can engage with them (or help others engage with them) most productively. Accordingly, our other main research activity in 2021 will be to conduct a review of interventions to improve institutional decision-making. Drawing on multiple academic disciplines as well as practice knowledge from policymakers, think tanks, consultants, and other thought leaders, we will aim to identify interventions which offer strong evidence of improving decision-making outcomes in an institutional setting, promising approaches that may lack a robust evidence base but are grounded in compelling theory, and strategies to be avoided based on the evidence. The insights gained from this project could eventually feed into tailored strategies targeted at the key institutions identified from the first project. They will also begin to address one of the most important outstanding questions about IIDM as a cause area, which is whether there are tractable interventions that can reliably make a difference at scale. As with the “key institutions” analysis, we hope that this “what works in IIDM” project will be a living document and a core ongoing intellectual contribution of our community to the cause.
A Research Agenda for IIDM
We anticipate that our initial work to scope this cause area through the two projects above will yield a robust set of questions that demand further research. We’ll use these questions to form the basis of a research agenda that will guide our own future efforts and (we hope) serve as a source of inspiration for other researchers interested in these topics. Along the way, we’ll also initiate high-level discussions of how we think IIDM fits into theoretical questions in the EA space, such as how IIDM relates to ideas like near vs. long-termism and worldview diversification. We expect the agenda to be an evolving document and will seek input from people with a range of disciplinary and professional backgrounds.
IIDM Resource Directory
Concurrently with the above initiatives, we have already begun work on a directory of IIDM-related resources. It will include important publications, organizations working in the space, individual thought leaders, curricula and training programs, career guides, tools and techniques, and more. The resource directory will function not only as a reference guide for the broader community but also as a stakeholder map for our own efforts to build relevant alliances and advance the cause area both within and outside of the EA community.
Community Engagement and Development
On the community and organisational development side, our primary objective in the next year will be to establish a firmer infrastructure for our work and tighter coordination among the many actors operating in this space. We’ll seek to connect organizations and people pursuing highly aligned work but who may not be aware of each other’s efforts, accelerate the sharing of knowledge and promising practices across disciplines and geographic boundaries, and establish a circle of advisors to provide feedback on our projects. Our hypothesis is that this will result in more and better work on the above initiatives, improve collaboration on existing projects, highlight critical gaps in the field, and contribute to our own learning that will be taking place in parallel. A better understanding of who is currently working on related projects should also help with career mentoring - people interested in contributing to the field could be connected with people who have relevant experience.
Our chief goal in choosing these five initiatives is to put ourselves in a position by the end of 2021 to make initial recommendations about where and how IIDM-related efforts can accomplish the most good going forward. With that said, we expect our plans will evolve as we receive feedback on them and continue learning about the problem space, and will aim to post on the EA Forum or other venues at regular intervals to keep the community up to date about our progress.
How you can help
If you would like to get involved in any of the initiatives above, we would love to hear from you! Please fill in this form to express interest. We are particularly keen to hear from i) people with relevant research expertise to help develop the “What Works” for IIDM evidence synthesis and ii) people well placed to “own” responsibility for sections of the resource directory. We anticipate the volunteering to be remote, and to be scalable to the amount of time you’d like to dedicate. We would also welcome the possibility to talk to anyone about funding opportunities.
Beyond volunteering opportunities, we also value your feedback and ideas. Who should we talk to? What resources and initiatives should we be aware of, especially outside of the United States and Europe? What else should we be doing to develop IIDM as a cause area? We want to avoid reinventing the wheel to the extent possible and are keen to collaborate with and support well-aligned existing initiatives. We look forward to reading your comments on this post and subsequent conversations.
About the authors
Ian started the IIDM Facebook group in 2018. As an independent consultant, he works with foundations, government agencies, and large NGOs to help people around the world. His previous ventures include a think tank and a self-governed research community of practice. Ian's articles about improving institutional decision-making have appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review and the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Vicky is a data science manager at the What Works Centre for Children's Social Care, and brings expertise in impact evaluation, behavioural economics and decision science. Previously she co-founded a successful accelerator for social ventures.
Laura co-founded EA France and ran the organisation as executive director. She previously studied Political Science (undergrad) and Economics (Master’s) at Sciences Po, in France. She is currently involved in a variety of EA projects, mostly around community building, and on an EU policy path.
We are very grateful to those who provided comments on a draft of this post, including Nora Ammann, Tamara Borine, Ozzie Gooen, Sam Hilton, Habiba Islam, David Nash, Konrad Seifert, Maxime Stauffer, Stefan Torges, Ben West, and Jess Whittlestone.
Comments sorted by top scores.
comment by weeatquince ·
2020-12-30T17:46:33.855Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
This is really good and I am really excited by this project. Well done on such an excellent post and all the community building work and so on.
(Some of this I put in my earlier comments on a draft but repeating here publicly, hope that is OK)
A few thoughts questions and ideas come to mind.
Did you ever consider changing the name? Maybe the name doesn’t really matter much, but if "Improving Institutional Decision Making" has been hard for people to understand then there could be better names like'good governance' or 'institutional reform' etc etc.
Is it useful to try to narrow/broader or define the scope of IIDM? The borders of what exactly IIDM is will always be fuzzy, and may change with time. But it could still be somewhat helpful to try to set the scope of what you are interested in. Although maybe such an exercise is futile, will lead to unnecessary arguments and will just exclude people or ideas and we want to be as broad as possible for now. The kinds of things I am thinking about are:
- Helping progress the careers of EA aligned folk (eg 80K) – you already rule this out in your post. [I'd agree]
- Improving individual decision making (eg CFAR, LessWrong, etc). [My view is that this is not IIDM but maybe you think it is]
- Improving organisations in ways that are not directly decision making related, such as improving their efficiency, communications, reputation, representativeness to a population, etc? [I am not sure about this one]
- Creating new institution? [I think most people I know would consider this IIDM. I think the aim is not to improve a specific institution but the collective decision making of institutions]
In order to disambiguate it could be worth trying to better define IIDM – and do this in ways that draw out more of the questions that might be asked. I feel that your current definition of IIDM definition overly focuses on decision making. Asking how do we improve decision making then applying this to institutions might give a different answer to asking how do we improve institutions then seeing how that can be applied to their decision making. The way you describe IIDM seems to do more of former than the later. I think there could be an advantage to ensuring the question is approached form both angles.
That said later in the post you skew the other way and ask "what are the most important institutions in the world" not "what are the most important decisions made by institutions", as above approaching the question both ways could be better.
These are difficult questions to tease out. I think some sort of consultative community based approach to this could be useful. Working as broadly as possible to include people who want to be involved and get their views on names, on questions of wording, on definition and on scope.
Thank you for all the good work and best of luck.Replies from: IanDavidMoss
↑ comment by IanDavidMoss ·
2021-01-02T06:28:35.761Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks, Sam -- your feedback during the draft phase was extremely helpful and I'm happy for these open questions to be aired publicly as well.
Re: the name
We've had a number of conversations about this, and at this point I'd say it looks like the name isn't going anywhere for the time being. There is definitely a contingent of folks who aren't crazy about IIDM as a label, but it has its fans as well, and all of the alternatives that have been suggested have shortcomings of their own. Ultimately, I think that once some of the work we're describing here has been undertaken, there will be more concrete outputs for people to associate with our community and the name won't have to carry as much weight on its own.
This is definitely a work in progress for us, and even the process of drafting this post was helpful for sharpening our sense of what our scope is and isn't.
- Regarding careers, I do want to clarify that we don't consider career guidance to be inherently out of scope for us. In fact, we are working informally with 80K to funnel mentees into IIDM community spaces so that they can have a way to learn about relevant opportunities and resources. However, we feel it's premature for us to try to offer individualized career advice before we have a better sense of how the priorities stack up, and before we've had a chance to broaden our networks to include well-placed people in key institutions. The activities we've laid out for this year should help us make progress on both fronts.
- Regarding individual decision-making, indeed, I see this as more CFAR's domain although there are certainly important individual decisions that take place within professional or institutional contexts. So it's kind of on the edge of our scope, but more in than out.
- On ways to improve institutions that are not directly related to decision-making: this is related to your third point, so I'll address it below.
- Your last suggestion is covered in our post -- we mention new institutions in our list of levers to improve IIDM, so we do consider it in scope for us.
With all of these, it's important to emphasize that because our ambition is primarily to provide a connecting and coordination function, it's possible for things ro be "in scope" for us where we would still expect other parties to be the primary drivers of that thing. Individual decision-making is a good example of this; we wouldn't try to replicate or compete with what CFAR is doing, but can still consider them as part of our community broadly speaking because of the relevance of their work to ours.
Re: whether to emphasize "institutions" or "decision-making" more
I think the questions you bring up here are quite profound. I will say that I was initially drawn to this cause area and Jess's framing of it in her 80K profile in no small part because of its explicit emphasis on decision-making. As an employee or consultant, I've seen the inside of dozens of mission-driven organizations over the course of two decades, so I'm reasonably well positioned to pick up on patterns of institutional structure and routines. From what I've seen, there are relatively mature infrastructures (by which I mean formal roles, career tracks, training programs, etc.) for organizational functions such as program strategy, operations, research and evaluation, and executive leadership. Not so for decision-making, even though it cuts across all of the aforementioned areas and is absolutely central to what an organization actually accomplishes. In all of my time in the workforce, I have never seen a phenomenon as well-studied and obviously relevant as decision-making receive so little support from the organizations on behalf of which those decisions will be made. It's just assumed that everyone already knows how to make decisions well, even though the research clearly demonstrates that's not the case. It's really quite a puzzle!
Getting back to the question of whether the goal is to improve institutions or improve decision-making at institutions, I see this as something of a false dichotomy. Institutions make their mark on the world via the sum total of the decisions they make, so by improving institutions you're necessarily improving their decisions and vice versa. I agree that some things institutions do are not as easily recognizable as decisions as others--you mentioned working to improve their reputations or communications as examples of the former. Even in those cases, however, there are still decisions to be made: about how to prioritize the time of staff, budget, and executives in service of those priorities; about which audiences are most important and what messages are most desirable; and so forth. We are making decisions all the time; right now, I am choosing which words best express my opinions to you; I am choosing to stay up a bit past my bedtime to respond to this comment; I am choosing to prioritize my engagement with IIDM over other volunteer opportunities; and the sum total of those choices helps to outline the shape of the impact I create in the world, or don't. And that last principle applies to organizations just as well as individuals. At least that's the way I see it.Replies from: weeatquince
↑ comment by weeatquince ·
2021-01-02T08:00:13.335Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thank you Ian. Grateful for the thoughtful reply. Good to hear the background on the name and I agree it makes sense to think of scope in a more fuzzy way (eg in scope, on the edge of scope like cfar, useful meta projects like career advice, etc)
Just to clarify my point here was not one of "whether to emphasize institutions or decision-making more" (sorry if I was initial comment was confusing) but kind of the opposite point that: it would make sense to ensure both topics are roughly equally emphasised (and that I'm not sure your post does that).
Depending on which you emphasis and which questions you ask you will likey get different answers, different interventions, etc. At an early scoping stage when you don't want to rule out much, maintaining a broad scope for what to look into is important.
Also, to flag, I don't find the "everything is decision making" framing as intuitive or useful as you do.
Totally off topic from my original point, but it is interesting to note that my experience is the polar opposite of yours. Working in gov there was a fair amount of thought and advice and tools for effective decision making, but the institutional incentives where not there. Analysts would do vast amounts of work to assess decisions and options simply to have the final decision made by a leader just looking to enrich themselves / a politician's friend / a party donor / etc.
I'd still focus on finding answers from both angles for now, but, given my experience and given that governments are likey to be among the most important institutions, if I had to call it one way or the other, I'd expect the focus on the topic of improving decision making to be less fruitful than the focus on improving institutions.
Keep up the great work!
comment by vaidehi_agarwalla ·
2021-01-02T03:54:33.829Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
This post is very exciting! I'd be really interested to know:
Replies from: IanDavidMoss
- How did this working group come about?
- What was the research process for writing this post?
- How have you engaged with stakeholders so far?
- What kind of structures have you considered for this working group (e.g. purely professional, or a mix of staff & volunteers?) and which is the ideal one?
- How are you planning to manage volunteers?
- If you haven't achieved your 2021 goals, what do you think would be the most likely reason?
↑ comment by IanDavidMoss ·
2021-01-02T07:23:58.181Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Glad you think so! :) Here are some brief answers to your questions:
How did this working group come about?
It's been a very gradual and organic process. An abbreviated version of the story is as follows: In 2019, I pitched the EA Global organizers on organizing an IIDM meetup at the London conference. They agreed, and I ended up co-hosting the event with Tamara Borine and Sam Hilton (who also commented in this thread). Tam and I continued to meet regularly following the conference, and eventually she recruited Vicky and Laura to join us in mid-2020 based on ongoing conversations she'd had with each of them. Tam recently had to take a step back due to other commitments, so the core organizing team is now the three of us.
What was the research process for writing this post?
We haven't really thought of this post as a research post, so I'm not quite sure how to answer the question. I have a personal learning agenda for IIDM-related topics that I've been pursuing for the past several years, and drafted the original version of the IIDM definition based on that. The definition was subsequently refined considerably as a result of feedback from our advance readers. The list of initiatives came about as a result of a three-stage voting process our team undertook as an experiment in adapting more formal decision-making methodologies to our internal work; we expect to do more of that as the year goes on and hope to write about it as bandwidth allows.
How have you engaged with stakeholders so far?
The feedback process around this post and our stewardship of the IIDM Facebook and Slack communities have been the main activities so far. We also had a round of 1-on-1 conversations with around half a dozen EA leaders in early 2020 to gauge general interest in the cause area. We still have work to do to understand the EA community, but from my perspective the bigger gap is with stakeholders doing IIDM-related work outside of the EA context, whom we have yet to really engage in a formal way.
What kind of structures have you considered for this working group (e.g. purely professional, or a mix of staff & volunteers?) and which is the ideal one?
Right now, we are volunteer-driven out of necessity because we think the work is important to move forward but don't have any funding. I'm not sure if our group/organization needs to be fully professionalized on a sustained basis, but I think the more resources we have, the more possibilities it opens up. For example, even if we ran out of ways to put the money toward operations, we could set up a regranting fund for IIDM-related initiatives doing valuable work.
How are you planning to manage volunteers?
We'll be hashing out the details of that over the next few weeks, but I imagine that as a general model we'll determine what work needs to be done associated with each project/initiative and which tasks we feel comfortable delegating, set up whatever training or documentation needs to be in place in order to position volunteers for success on those tasks, and then match up the people who have expressed interest with the relevant tasks. As we continue to work with folks, we'll identify those who seem ready and interested in taking on more responsibility, and elevate them to management roles where possible.
If you haven't achieved your 2021 goals, what do you think would be the most likely reason?
Our goals are pretty ambitious for a group of part-time volunteers, so it wouldn't be all that surprising if we fell short! Lack of funding is a big constraint for us. Since I operate an independent consulting practice, I have the potential to redirect a large portion of my time to this project if we were funded to do so, but as a volunteer there are much tighter limits on the hours I can spare and there's a bigger risk that I'll miss deadlines because I have to prioritize paying clients. So that would be the most likely reason.
comment by MichaelA ·
2021-03-05T10:57:42.753Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for this post! This seems like a valuable project, and I'm excited to see what comes of it over the course of this year.
As a first step toward a working definition, we consider key institutions to be centrally managed bodies of one or more people in a direct position to allocate disproportionate funds and/or set rules, incentives, and norms affecting the lives of many.
tl;dr for the remainder of this comment: I tentatively suggest instead using a definition (or statement of scope/focus) more along the lines of:
We think the institutions it makes sense for IIDM to focus on are centrally managed bodies of one or more people who are in a position to directly determine or significantly influence important policy decisions, funding decisions, rules, incentives, norms, the implementation of programs and projects, research, development, and/or career decisions.
Rambling thoughts that underpin that:
You and/or commenters note being uncertain about whether to indeed focus on centrally managed bodies rather than decentralised bodies, and whether to indeed focus on institutions rather than individuals. But one thing that didn't seem to be discussed was this part of that working definition: "in a direct position to allocate disproportionate funds and/or set rules, incentives, and norms affecting the lives of many".
It seems to me that those are some of the actions/influences that can make it valuable to improve how an institution/individual makes decisions, but not all of them. For example, it seems like it wouldn't capture:
Replies from: IanDavidMoss
- Influencing (rather than directly making) policy choices
- E.g., I'd tend to think of think tanks as themselves institutions
- And it seems to me productive to include such institutions within the scope of IIDM, since some such institutions can be quite influential, their influence could be made more positive if their decision-making was improved, and their decision-making could often be improved in somewhat similar ways to how e.g. a government's own decision-making could be improved
- There will of course between differences in what IIDM efforts will tend to be useful for each type of institution, but this is also true between "large governments, foundations, multilateral agencies, etc."
- Influencing career decisions
- E.g., if 80,000 Hours' decision-making seemed poor, it would seem valuable to improve it, and I think some of the IIDM efforts relevant to other institutions could apply there as well
- Ordering military actions (or failing to), which could fairly directly cause people to die, and also could disrupt/destroy (rather than set) rules, incentives, and norms
- Running certain types of "programs" or "projects"
- E.g., a government agency may run a program that helps certain separate groups of experts pool and disseminate their knowledge, or may build a major dam. This could affect many people's lives. But it doesn't really seem to do so by allocating disproportionate funds and/or setting rules, incentives, and norms, except in trivial senses like that most professional actions require paying someone.
- Acting in a way that doesn't exactly set rules, incentives, or norms (in what I see as the intuitive sense of "set"), but still in effect contributes to, undermines, or adjusts certain rules, incentives, or norms
- I'd see "set" as implying that this outcome is intended by the institutions, that it's fairly explicit that the institution is trying to bring this outcome about, and that the institution has a "mandate" or "legitimacy" for undertaking the relevant actions
- Whereas there could be cases where institutions' actions accidentally influence these outcomes, or the institution influences these outcomes deliberately but underhandedly
- I think that this might be nit-picking, and in any case could probably be fixed by saying "in a direct position to significantly influence funding allocation, rules, incentives, and norms affecting the lives of many".
- Doing research and/or development
- Again, I think that this is something that can be done by organisations, and that it could be valuable to improve those organisation's decision-making, and that some IIDM efforts could be relevant to doing that
↑ comment by IanDavidMoss ·
2021-03-08T17:17:57.597Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Excellent points, Michael! I agree with much of what you wrote here, especially the first three points. I think the most important theme you bring up is the relevance of indirect influence, which you're absolutely right isn't reflected well enough in the definition as currently written. We are working on an operationalization of this definition now for the purposes of prioritizing key institutions, and I believe the way we've structured it will allow us to take considerations like these into account. Would love to have your feedback on it and will PM you with more info.
comment by rorty ·
2020-12-28T23:58:34.032Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Do you see this area as limited to cases where participants in a decision are trying and failing to make "good" decisions by their own criteria (ie where incentives are aligned but performance isn't there because of bad process or similar) or are you also thinking of cases where participants have divergent goals and suboptimal decisions from an EA standpoint are driven by conflict and misaligned incentives rather than by process failures?
Replies from: firstname.lastname@example.org
↑ comment by Vicky Clayton (email@example.com) ·
2020-12-29T14:03:02.499Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for the comment rorty! It's a really good question. I think the simple answer is that we don't know at this stage. I don't think it has to be the dichotomy you suggest though. A process could help individuals within a group align better and figure out what compromises they are happy to make. The question of whether we try to change people's goals I think depends on how tractable it is and we also recognise that there is already considerable efforts in EA movement building which may better cover trying to change people's goals. Thanks again.
comment by Tony.Sena ·
2020-12-28T13:29:16.777Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks all for synthesizing these thoughts and laying out the team’s plan for the upcoming year. I look forward to reading more around how the team’s thoughts progress on these important questions. I understand that defining and subsequently determining ‘key institutions’ is a priority area for the team and so to the extent these still may be being considered please feel free to ignore. I have some questions regarding institutions as a vector for driving effective change.
What would you consider to be the other main decision making vectors (I am imagining individuals, authoritarian leaders etc) and is there a reason why improving the decision-making processes of 'institutions' specifically should be prioritized over these other vectors? Do you see overlap between IIDM and the arguments for an increased focus on ‘economic growth’ style interventions [EA · GW]? Accordingly, to what extent is IIDM analogous to driving effective change through improved macroeconomic interventions? Replies from: firstname.lastname@example.org
↑ comment by Vicky Clayton (email@example.com) ·
2020-12-29T14:03:51.111Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks Tony.Sena for the comment and the great questions. It's really good to challenge premises, particularly at the beginning! I guess focusing on institutions is on the premise that good decision-making within institutions involves more than each individual within that institution making good decisions separately - there's coordination, aligning goals etc to think about - and also on the premise that we think most resources / norms are controlled by institutions rather than individuals (even authoritarian leaders operate within a greater decision making operation). I / we shall have to think a bit more about the similarity to economic growth / more macro interventions. I'm imagining you could frame economic growth as the goal and then figure out which institutions to work with and how to support better decision making to promote economic growth, or define "welfare" as the goal and assess economic growth as one of the potential options to get there. I'm much more comfortable on the randomista side of the things myself but shall do some more thinking about what IIDM looks like on a macro level. Thanks again.
comment by sbehmer ·
2021-01-02T22:40:13.425Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
This seems like a very good initiative. It's great to see this cause area moving forward.
Now, like some of the other commenters, I'm having some trouble understanding what kind of work IIDM includes. I agree with the earlier comment which said that the framing of IIDM so far has emphasized improving decision-making a lot more than improving institutions. The original 80k article focused mainly on the possibility of correcting cognitive biases (the kind that people would learn about in cognitive science or psychology classes). There was no mention of the large body of academic work relating to institutional design (this would mainly be learned in political economy or political science courses). Until reading the comments on this post, I was under the impression that IIDM was focused only on "how do we improve decision-making within the current political system" rather than "how can we reform the political system to work better". So, for example, I thought that EA-funded organizations working on voting reform wouldn't fall under IIDM.
If you want IIDM to include institutional reform, then I think that should be made more clear. At least for me, one thing that would have helped is if a different name was used for the overall cause area (like improving institutions) and then within that cause area you have IIDM, which is focused only on improving decision-making within a given institutional structure.
However, I'm pretty unsure of how much overlap there is between these two cause areas, so I'm not sure that it's even worth having the institutional reform people in your working group. Does someone working on constitution design have much to contribute to a discussion on how to teach civil servants to better deal with uncertainty? At least in the academic world, these two fields are fairly separate (from what I can tell). Maybe it would better to have these mostly operate as two separate cause areas.Replies from: firstname.lastname@example.org
↑ comment by Vicky Clayton (email@example.com) ·
2021-03-20T14:34:10.846Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for the comment, and apologies that I've just seen it now. Similarly to Ian (see the comment [EA(p) · GW(p)] above) I was originally drawn to the area because of the focus on decision-making but have since updated that improving institutions is also about the broader landscape of the design of institutions and how they interact with each other. As you mention, they are currently pretty different (at least academic) fields. I can imagine that there would be some crossover where identifying problems within the existing systems at a lower down level help identify what new systems need to do better but I think, as with a lot of these kind of open questions, it'll be about starting these conversations and seeing whether they are useful. Thanks again.
comment by ryan_b ·
2021-01-07T21:55:41.489Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
I suggest looking into megaproject management. It grew out of regular project management, and focuses on the problem of very large projects because they go so badly so often. The problem they want to solve looks very big; they estimate that projects of this type, excluding economic stimulus programs and defense procurement, account for ~8% of global GDP.
I wrote a summary of one of the intro papers [LW · GW] on LessWrong. The person driving the field appears to be Bent Flyvbjerg, who is at Oxford, though more researchers are involved.Replies from: firstname.lastname@example.org
↑ comment by Vicky Clayton (email@example.com) ·
2021-03-20T14:38:23.711Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
Thanks for your comment, Ryan, and apologies for only spotting it just now. I agree there's lots of efficiency gains to be made on big projects! I wonder whether it's difficult to gain evidence on "what works" to improve them because there are so few and there's lots of different complexities (vs small projects - we have a lot more to observe and there's fewer dimensions).Replies from: ryan_b
↑ comment by ryan_b ·
2021-03-20T21:06:07.343Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
It definitely is, mostly because there are so few successful projects to point to. Most of the work has been identifying what failed projects have in common, and then there are a few shining counterexamples against which they can test. It currently looks like the core insight is that planning needs to shift from controlling things to accounting for things you cannot control: lots of stakeholders (because many are attracted due to the sheer size of the project); black swans (in multi-year construction there is likely to be a bad storm but no telling when); the economy; etc.