Decision making in communities

How what happens after the decision depends on involvement before the decision.

Puzzle pieces
Solving problems in communities can be puzzling

There is a problem to be solved, information to consider, and decisions to be made which focus on a solution. So, what do you do first?

Ronald A. Heifetz and Riley M. Sinder of Harvard University developed the Locus of Decision-Making model, which helps to explain when to involve others versus when to go boldly forward alone.


Policy situation

Problem definition


Locus of decision

Type I








Type II






Leader and citizens


Type III








Source: Heifetz, R. A., (1990). Political leadership: Managing the public’s problem solving. In R. B. Reich (Ed.), The power of public ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

If there is general understanding and agreement about the problem and there is an obvious solution that is possible to do, then get to work! This is a Type I decision that clearly doesn’t need a committee to formulate a plan.

Example: Install a flashing light at that intersection which has claimed yet another life due to failure to stop at the stop sign.

What if there is general understanding and agreement about the problem and there are several possible solutions which happen to affect some people differently than others? In fact, there may be no obvious solution to this problem. Now, that committee is needed, or some other forum to involve those affected to be part of the decision-making process. Local voices need to speak and hear the pros and cons concerning each potential answer to this problem, or there will be perceived winners and losers on this issue! This is a Type II decision that needs to involve those touched to help propose a reasonable solution to a problem, which affects people in different ways.

Example: We know that the county landfill does not comply with new state and federal requirements, yet solid waste must be disposed of. Possible solutions include a new county contract with a private hauling firm, constructing a new landfill, waste incineration, plus work to increase the local rates of recycling and reuse. Local decision makers must work with affected citizens to determine the option that best meet the interests of all.

Okay, that was easy enough. Now there’s a problem when people know something is wrong but can't define exactly what – there are too many layers in this hornet’s nest to find the queen bee! This is a Type III decision that relies on an in-depth response from others to define the real problem, then propose a reasonable solution that can work.

This is the time to call in broad-based citizen participation in a structured process to tackle the elephant. Focus discussion: first on what is the primary problem, and then what might we do to move in a positive direction? If this is the type of complex problem that you are dealing with and additional input is not actively sought out – implementing any solution will be a struggle. In fact, that particular problem may never be solved if people affected are not part of the process to determine the root of the problem and how to solve it!

Example: The local water reservoir shows heavy sediment and nutrient loading. The farming community blames urban development, developers blame farmers, and all accuse state regulatory agencies of unequal regulation enforcement.

Each community views the problem from their perspective, so of course theirs is what they consider the best solution. But, first and foremost, the problem must be accurately defined. Citizens must work collaboratively to identify and agree on the problem and generate options for its resolution. If all affected citizens reach consensus on a preferred solution, then the decision is evident.

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers professional development training, including volunteer board development, communicating through conflict, meeting management and facilitation. To contact an expert in your area, visit our website

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