In this contribution post, Alec Christie introduces a novel tool guiding and encouraging practitioners to document and report the evidence and reasoning behind conservation decisions. The tool guide and template are permanently archived in Applied Ecology Resources.
When undertaking actions to restore habitats or conserve wildlife, we often have to make difficult decisions. Which actions are best to benefit bird species or pollinators? How effective will these actions be? Are they feasible to implement, and acceptable to other stakeholders? To make decisions, conservationists have to use and combine various sources of information – including evidence on the effectiveness of different strategies, costs, feasibility and acceptability – and ensure that limited funds are used to maximum effect.
The process is time-consuming, and often ends up being duplicated when knowledge of why past decisions were made is lost, for example because of turnover in staff. Here I outline a new decision support tool developed jointly between conservation researchers and practitioners that helps to document the evidence and thinking behind decisions.
Why is using evidence important?
When explaining the benefits of using evidence, I try to get people to use a broad definition of what evidence is – in this case, ‘any relevant information to assess a claim about a question of interest’ (adapted from Salafsky et al. 2019). This means that local knowledge, scientific papers, organisational reports, historical and archival material, as well as your own data and notebooks all count as evidence.
The process of using evidence is a way of learning from our collective past failures and successes, so that we do more of what works and less of what does not. By avoiding ineffective, suboptimal, or harmful actions, there is potential to save time, money and resources. In addition, by using evidence drawn from a wide range of sources and ensuring that local knowledge is incorporated, we can better foster engagement in, and ultimately support for, management actions, which are then more likely to succeed.
So how does the tool we’ve developed help to achieve this?
The Evidence-to-Decision tool
Adapted from a medical decision-making framework that came out in 2016, the Evidence-to-Decision tool was co-designed and tested by practitioners from a range of conservation organisations in the UK and abroad in 2020 and 2021. The tool lays out a step-by-step process by which to assess which actions (if any) should be taken to achieve a particular goal, by drawing on different pieces of evidence.
One of the key advantages of the tool is that it helps to provide a record of how and why decisions were made. Short-term contracts and frequent staff turnover are common in the conservation, ecology, and land management sectors, and so the aim of this documentation process is to ensure that future staff can understand why past actions were taken. They can then update and reassess these decisions based on new evidence and thinking in the future.
I like to think of this as an “evidence audit” – it helps to ensure that decision-makers are doing their due diligence and provides some transparency and accountability over decision-making.
More fundamentally, the tool offers a step-by-step template for how organisations could embed evidence-based decision-making into their practices. The tool helps to assess the successes and failures of past projects (alongside external evidence from other sources) to decide what to do next. These next steps could be to implement different actions, take no action, conduct further research or use a more in-depth decision-making process.
This process encourages a cycle of adaptive management, with decisions and actions repeatedly evaluated and reassessed to improve practice on the ground.
How does the tool work?
There are three steps to the process:
The first is to ‘Define the Decision Context’, which involves recording relevant background information on the decision being made, such as the target and intended outcome of any management action, the constraints on decision-making (budgets and legislation, for example), and relevant stakeholders.
For example, this could involve describing a problem such as how to reduce the mortality of amphibians crossing roads. Important information to document here would include the available budget for any potential actions, stakeholders (e.g., the local council and residents who own and use the road), and Natterjack toads as a target species.
The second step, ‘Gather Evidence’, has several sections to ensure that diverse sources of evidence can be used to assess whether to implement each action.
First, you are prompted to identify potential actions that could help in achieving the desired goal (e.g. ‘Install tunnels under roads’).
Once these potential actions have been stated, you are then guided through the process of assessing the available evidence on different aspects of each option (e.g. How effective are tunnels at reducing mortality? Are toad patrols cost-effective? Is tunnel construction feasible based on the equipment and resources available, and is it acceptable to stakeholders?). At different stages, you are asked to rate the effectiveness, costs, acceptability, and feasibility for each action, as well as uncertainty, based on the evidence available.
The final step is to ‘Make an Evidence-based Decision’. The tool helps you weigh up the evidence to determine which actions (if any) should be implemented, including a summary comparison table that presents scores from the previous section for each action (on effectiveness, costs, acceptability, and feasibility, as well as uncertainty).
For example, this section will get you to think about whether the best option is to install tunnels under roads or to do nothing and instead do some trials, consultations, and/or research before acting.
Throughout all three steps, the tool prompts users to record their evidence and reasoning in separate text fields. The online tool allows you to download a summary report that sets out this evidence-based decision-making process, while the offline template can be filled out as a report to do the same.
This means that the information can be saved for future reference to aid further decision-making or help reassess past decisions. Users are also encouraged to monitor, evaluate, and report on the results of implemented actions – regardless of success or failure – for the benefit of others faced with similar decisions.
What decisions should the tool be used for?
Time is always a problem in decision-making. To work out how much time is appropriate to invest in considering the evidence using a decision tool such as this, we would recommend using the Strategic Evidence Planning Framework developed jointly by a group of researchers and practitioners.
For regular, day-to-day decisions with lower importance and lower risks, it would be inefficient and unfeasible to invest time in following a rigorous structured decision-making process. A lower-risk decision might involve, for example, selecting which types of owl nest boxes to place on farmland; the cost here is likely to be low and the risks posed by failing to attract owls are low.
When decisions of higher risk and importance are considered, however, time should be devoted to thoroughly assessing the available evidence, which is where a step-by-step process such as the Evidence-to-Decision tool can help. A higher-risk decision could involve deciding how to enhance grassland to benefit owl populations by changing land management practices across an entire estate; any intervention here could be expensive and risky if unsuccessful.
The Evidence-to-Decision tool is designed to be flexible, so that users could spend anywhere between an hour to several days using it to guide their decision-making. The quantity of evidence that is collated and assessed, and the amount of time spent considering and weighing up that evidence, can be adjusted as required based on the importance and risk associated with the decision. It’s also worth stating that if little evidence can be found to fill out the different sections of the tool, then users can simply state this and move on – however, this lack of evidence should then be accounted for when making the decision.
The point of the tool is to make it clear what evidence and reasoning has been used. In addition, it is also perfectly reasonable that your decision could be to take no action because there is too much uncertainty or risk – in this case, reporting on the next steps to gather more evidence (possibly including conducting research) is important so that the decision can be revisited in future using the tool.
Accessing the tool and getting involved
The Evidence-to-Decision tool is available online at www.evidence2decisiontool.com, where you can also find an offline template (also in AER) that can be used and adapted to suit your needs. There is also a user guide that provides additional advice and lists useful resources, whilst Christie et al. (2021) provide further detailed information on the tool.
Organisations and individuals in conservation are very welcome to get involved with the testing and usage of the Evidence-to-Decision tool. If you are interested in a free workshop session covering how to use the tool and some more information about the Conservation Evidence project, please get in touch via our contact form or with me directly through email@example.com.
Read the original full length post on the Conservation Evidence blog.