When the first reports of COVID-19 cases were finally confirmed in the United States, the United States government quickly established a task force to help the administration obtain subject matter expertise from epidemiologists and public health professionals. When a crisis occurs, especially a pandemic, organizations must decide on appropriate responses and how to approach the crisis. The choice of decision-making method is just as important as the final decision itself. Although there was no public announcement, the group decision making process of the U.S. government most closely resembled resembled the Delphi technique. Given the scope and wide ranging impacts of the epidemic, I argue that a Dialectical Inquiry method would have been more appropriate and potentially would have helped limit the collateral damage.
The Delphi group decision-making technique was developed, in part, by the RAND corporation and usually involves the formation of a subject matter expert group or task force that will lead the decision-making process. The group examines forecasts, reports, and commentary from the expert groups in an iterative process. This method usually takes a little time as the information is surveyed and a final risk management approach is developed by the group. The main benefits of this method over other decision-making methods is the presence of subject matter experts and the iterative, evidence focused process that usually arrives at optimal decision making outcomes. This is especially true when the problem is narrow in scope, the response can be developed by the experts, and data is present to help guide the effort. In the case of COVID-19, the main limitation of the task force was quickly realized. Although the task force assembled top experts across medicine, health, epidemiology, and economy, the appropriate risk management response for COVID-19 was far too complicated for a task force and the data inputs were limited. Also, there was little room for opposing or countering views and approaches. This lead to an “expert” opinion that was limited to a small group and was only marginally stress tested. Lastly, there were limited experts involved with the decision making which led to a weakening of a method that is supposed to poll large audiences of experts. The consequences of using the Delphi method unilaterally will be measured for years to come.
In an alternative approach, the dialectical inquiry group decision-making process would have led to more alternative viewpoints and a deeper analytical process. The group looks at ALL possible alternatives and debates the alternatives heavily, examining possible consequences. An offshoot of this process, the “devil’s advocate approach,” allows consequence mapping to occur to examine the impacts of decision and risk management choices. If this approach was used when deciding on a proper approach to dealing with COVID-19 early and throughout the pandemic outbreak, perhaps there would be less of a detrimental impact in the long term and better support from the population while watching the decision making process in progress. Even more optimally, the usage of a hybrid approach where both techniques were employed, could have resulted in different decisions. Unfortunately, the siloed Delphi approach, despite being led by experts, limited the possibilities and options. It remains to be seen if companies and organizations will begin implementing hybrid models moving forward after seeing the downside of the Delphi approach.
Helmer-Hirschberg, Olaf, Analysis of the Future: The Delphi Method. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1967. https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P3558.html. Also available in print form.