How Decision Support Systems Can Benefit from a Theory of Change Approach
Decision support systems are now mostly computer and internet-based information systems designed to support land managers with complex decision-making. However, there is concern that many environmental and agricultural decision support systems remain underutilized and ineffective. Recent efforts to improve decision support systems use have focused on enhancing stakeholder participation in their development, but a mismatch between stakeholders’ expectations and the reality of decision support systems outputs continues to limit uptake. Additional challenges remain in problem-framing and evaluation. We propose using an outcomes-based approach called theory of change in conjunction with decision support systems development to support both wider problem-framing and outcomes-based monitoring and evaluation. The theory of change helps framing by placing the decision support systems within a wider context. It highlights how decision support systems use can “contribute” to long-term outcomes, and helps align decision support systems outputs with these larger goals. We illustrate the benefits of linking decision support systems development and application with a theory of change approach using an example of pest rabbit management in Australia. We develop a theory of change that outlines the activities required to achieve the outcomes desired from an effective rabbit management program, and two decision support systems that contribute to specific aspects of decision making in this wider problem context. Using a theory of change in this way should increase acceptance of the role of decision support systems by end-users, clarify their limitations and, importantly, increase effectiveness of rabbit management. The use of a theory of change should benefit those seeking to improve decision support systems design, use and, evaluation.