• Clara Richards

Conceptual Framework No. 5: Models of Operation Research

[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series devoted to tools and frameworks for researchers to plan better projects right from the start. Please read the first post for the general outline of the series.]

This is the last post of this series that presents different conceptual frameworks to help researchers plan projects that can relate to policymaking processes. This last conceptual framework is of ‘models of operation’ and it relates to research designs that are planned to compare options to inform decision-making processes. One can probably imagine the situations when policymakers are deciding on a concrete policy. Many times policymakers, especially in the executive, have concrete mandates, sometimes they have concrete goals to fulfill. But there are different routes that can fulfill such mandate. When these occasions occur, it is possible that models of operation research are a good alternative to organize a research project at this stage.

What are models of operation?

Models or operation research are frameworks that allow us to compare.  The objective in these instances is to inform a decision, so choices must be as clearly defined as possible. One can establish research questions that compare two concrete policies or programs, to determine which one is most beneficial. Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) is the most common approach to this question. The objective is to balance out the possible costs and benefits of two choices to inform which option should be taken. It might be based on economic terms, but it might also include other social or environmental considerations.

One could also seek to compliment a decision-making process with additional considerations. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) have emerged as a tool to inform policymakers of the expected impact on a given policy or project on the environment. Ideally, EIAs can affect whether a project is carried out, or can promote changes that would make it more suitable to its environmental contexts.

In the case of deciding between funding different programs, the Return of Investment (ROI) analysis has been used to explore the possible outcomes of a given investment. In the case of policies or development projects finances by donors, the outcomes do not have a tangible return on a dollar amount. However, a wider perspective can be taken to account for the broad positive impact of a policy.

These are just some examples of models used to compare policies and to tackle questions regarding its benefits to inform decision makers.

When should you use it?

The key to using models of operation is to make sure that stakeholders are at a point to make a decision. Maybe more exploratory research is necessary, maybe options have to be developed before they can be compared and a decision can be made. For example for a proper EIA study to be carried out, a project has to be as clearly defined as possible. In the case of a Cost Benefit Analysis, it is critical to compare specific policies. If not, the comparison may be vague and may not be as informative.

Since these frameworks are used to inform decision-making processes, it is important to have clarity of who is making the decision, and the extent of those decisions. Are the policies being analyzed within the reach of the decision maker? For example, can a program be put forward within the current legal framework? Will the legislative need to change a law or regulation for a program to be executed?  In these research processes it is critical to know who needs to do what for a program to be executed, to also consider the likelihood of those actions to be carried out. It is critical to consider to what extend costs are a limitation. Is our objective to find the most cost-effective solution? Is it to find the best solution despite the costs? In most cases, the decision is about finding the sweet spot between both.

Time is also critical. As Leonardo Garnier comments in his latest interview: ‘there is a need for combining the sense of urgency with rigorous studies; there must be a balance: one should not proceed blindly nor be paralyzed by the lack of perfect information.” When planning research to inform a decision, it is important to plan for the results to be available before the decision must be made. This means choosing research that is feasible in the available time and also fit for purpose.

Additional notes

Good reads on some of these models:

The Case against ROI Control” discusses a business perspective on ROI while this article discusses the application of ROI to other sectors such as communications.

This guide on Costs Benefit Analysis by the Asian Development Bank.

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