Making expert decisions
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Sep 04, 2000
Anyone who has ever moved from one home to another or had to change office
locations knows it is not exactly a pleasant experience.
But imagine being in charge of moving a federal agency of 7,000 people,
inhabiting 18 buildings with 36 different leases, into a new 2-million-square-foot
facility. Imagine further that the job calls for a fixed budget and a strict
timetable and that the entire process will be under the microscope as a
potential model for other federal agencies.
Rick Hendricks, manager of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office corporate
headquarters project at the General Services Administration, is doing just
that. He's responsible for moving USPTO workers from Crystal City, Va.,
to a yet-to-be-built complex in nearby Alexandria.
To help manage the immense undertaking, Hendricks is relying on a decision-support
software program and methodology designed to handle complex problems. Not
only does the software incorporate hard factors — such as rent, movers and
downtime — into its calculations, but it also accounts for project intangibles
such as safety, social and environmental problems, and even office politics.
Using the program, called Expert Choice from Expert Choice Inc., Hendricks
said he expects to have an action plan completed within the next two months
instead of having to wait more than a year using traditional consultant-based
"With all the complex pieces, traditionally, we'd get a consultant and
get a proposal for the move from point A to point B," he said. "Basically,
you bring that [proposal] to everyone and people potshot it because someone's
always going to have a problem...and [in the end] you don't know if it will
be at the least cost to the government."
Expert Choice uses a methodology that streamlines decision-making by
first helping identify areas of agreement. Consequently, a team invests
time in areas of disagreement and reaches faster consensus.
"The technology offers substantial time savings in helping people to
optimize their communication," said Debra Stouffer, acting deputy chief
information officer for information technology reform at the Department
of Housing and Urban Development. Stouffer has used the tool for the department's
IT capital planning and investment process. "Without a structured process,
people spend too much time in meetings arguing about issues for which they
are in agreement — and just don't know it," Stouffer added. "Expert Choice
helps people focus on the benefits of proj-ects toward strategic goals rather
than personal interests. The technology provides a clear and coherent audit
trail of why investment options are best-value so that people can spend
time discussing where to best allocate resources rather than debating personal
Expert Choice is based on the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP), a decision-
making theory developed in the 1970s by Thomas Saaty, then a professor
at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. AHP was first used
to help the United States and Russia during nuclear dis-armament talks.
"It wasn't just how many of theirs vs. how many of ours," said Saaty,
who is currently teaching mathematics courses at the University of Pittsburgh.
"It was a question of intangibles, not just numbers. I could foresee that
people needed this kind of thing and I'm happy that it's spreading and that
the [government] is making good use of it."
In addition to GSA and HUD, Expert Choice is being used by the Department
of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Postal Service, the Federal Aviation Administration
and intelligence agencies. The tool can be used for strategic planning,
resource allocation, human resource management, vendor selection, risk assessment
and other tasks.
Saaty said a current government proj-ect that could benefit from the
AHP methodology and Expert Choice is the national missile defense initiative.
"They should run it through the AHP model with benefits and costs and include
all the important factors, including opposition from China and Russia to
see the real winner, instead of forcing it like they are now."
Daniel Saaty, Saaty's son and the chief operating officer of Washington,
D.C.-based Expert Choice, said the tool helps users structure complexity,
leverage the expertise of decision-makers, score their choices and synthesize
all the information for a meaningful answer.
"Expert Choice helps you establish goals, prioritize them, evaluate
choices and then synthesize that with data for informed decisions," the
younger Saaty said. "AHP structures decisions with a hierarchy of goals.
It's a preference structure and not "salami slicing,' where certain things
are weighted by an [arbitrary] point scale. There's no good quantitative
decisions with "salami slicing.'"
Instead, Expert Choice uses a verbal scale paired with weighted percentages.
In June, the company released Expert Choice 2000, a Web-enabled version
of the software that allows users to participate in decision-making when
they have Internet access. "It's the Rolls Royce of decision-support software
that took us four years to develop and allows people to participate from
anywhere remotely," Saaty said.
The latest tool, like all Expert Choice products and services, is available
on the GSA schedule. Pricing ranges from $30,000 for a consultant's version
to $250,000 for an enterprise version for organizations.
The VA has been using Expert Choice as part of its capital investment
process for more than two years and was recently recognized by the Office
of Management and Budget with a best practices award for the system.
"It's used to select all [major] capital investments in the budget process,
including IT equipment," said James Sullivan, director of capital budgeting
at the VA. "We change the goals and relative weights on an annual basis,
but you can change them on any basis you like."
Sullivan said the VA started a best practice study on the capital investment
process in 1998 and came up with an AHP-type methodology on its own, but
when they "tried the homegrown version, it just didn't work. Expert Choice
came in and customized the decision-support software program to our needs.
It prioritizes and is used by [managers] on the policy level to agree on
goals and weights. It's a cross-fertilization of the disparate points of
the bureaucracy the first time out of the box, and it saves millions of
"The cost of investing in one bad IT project can be millions of dollars
with no apparent value to the organization," HUD's Stouffer said. "Expert
Choice can help to save millions of dollars simply by ensuring that the
projects we spend money on are truly beneficial towards strategic objectives."
O. John Wasyluk, a budget analyst at the VA, said Expert Choice's flexibility
and user-friendliness are key factors in getting all voices heard in the
planning process and helping the department meet its goals.
"It's a very dynamic process, and every year we do a lessons-learned
study and suggest ways to make it more user-friendly," Wasyluk said. "There
are no trump cards. Everyone knows what is being graded and graded against,
so it creates a level playing field, and that's what people like because
it's best for the agency and best for the vets."
In addition to capital planning, Sullivan has also seen the tool used
at division levels to make personnel decisions. In one case, an office was
searching for a chief medical officer and had 12 candidates for one position.
Normally, the process would have taken weeks because the people involved
"have a hard time agreeing on anything," he said.
"They used Expert Choice and within two hours were able to agree on
major criteria, set weights and reach consensus on a short list," Sullivan
said. "And they didn't waste time, emotion or political good will. It put
everybody's agenda on the table through the process of dialogue and prioritization
into criteria and subcriteria."
Sullivan said he'd like to see Expert Choice link to the control modules
of the agency's financial and accounting system for true performance tracking
throughout a proj-ect's life. "Right now, it's a stand-alone decision tool,
which is great, but I'd like to see it [advance] to say, "Here's the decision,
here's the proj-ect' and be able to track the money and performance."
Tomas Ramirez, a senior technology analyst at the General Accounting
Office, said any tool that helps his department better understand agencies'
decision- making pro-cesses is welcomed. And Expert Choice has a good reputation
with federal watchdogs.
"It's a tool that agencies can use to start discussing what their options
are for different things," Ramirez said. "Any tool an agency uses that helps
make better decisions and define the criteria they need in the capital planning
process is something we'd recommend."