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Setting Priorities: How do we decide what to do?

Andrea Bodkin, HC Link Coordinator

As soon as I hear the term “priority setting” my mind jumps to the tools or processes we can use to determine priorities. Dot-mocracy, anyone? But in doing some research on this topic to prepare for an upcoming consultation, I was reminded that there are a few more things that go into priority-setting than simply picking out the options that sound good.

Why set priorities?

First of all, setting priorities allows us to focus our efforts on what we can realistically achieve that will have impact. Otherwise, all issues seem important and we end up overworked, under resourced and run the risk of not accomplishing our goals.

In my opinion, a very critical step here is to make sure that you have a solid sense of what it is the group wants achieve together. It could be a vision statement, a goal, a mandate or a strategic priority- it doesn’t matter too much what you call it- it matters that the group has agreed on some kind of a statement of purpose that answers the question “what is it that we want to ACHIEVE as a result of our work?” This statement becomes an important touchstone that should help guide you in all decision-making moving forward.

At the prioritizing stage in the process, the community group/organization has already engaged in some research and planning conversations, and has identified or brainstormed a range of options for activities, initiatives or programs to pursue. Now it’s time to move from “blue sky thinking” to what the group can realistically achieve together.

How do we set priorities?

This excellent article from Health Promotion Capacity Building Services (HPCB) at Public Health Ontario (formerly THCU) outlines a simple, 3 step process for setting priorities BEFORE you begin:

  1. Identify criteria on which to compare options
  2. Select processes to vote/score/rank
  3. Clarify roles/ processes to make the final choice

Identify criteria

As a group, determine what criteria you’ll use to compare options and make decisions about what initiatives/activities/programs the group will move forward with. For example:

Fit with mandate/vision Urgency
Resources required Feasibility
Impact Reach
Importance Community need

This step allows us to identify how we’ll know what’s important. Otherwise we risk using the “ooooh sparkly thing!” method of prioritizing, which means we drop whatever we’re doing in favour of the new, shiny thing.

Select process to vote

Once you have your criteria, it’s time to talk tools. The tool you select will depend on the nature of your work, the type of group you’re working with and the time you have for the exercise.

Dotmocracy is a multi-voting technique. In its simplest form, you provide participants with one to three dots (usually stickers) and invite them to place a dot beside their top one to three options.

Paired comparisons is a snapshot process to be used with small to mid-sized groups to help narrow options further after dotmocracy.

Quadrant analysis is useful if you have two clear criteria upon which to make a decision (for example, effort and impact), and those two criteria can be qualified in a dichotomous way (for example, high versus low). The use of specific criteria means it is a slightly more rigorous and time-consuming method than the two previously described methods.

Grid analysis is useful when you must or might have to defend your program decisions with ample evidence. Also known as a decision matrix analysis, it is a great process for when you have many criteria.

Clarify roles/processes

At some point in time (hopefully, at the end of this process) the group is going to make a decision about how to move forward. It’s important to outline - before you actually begin your decision-making process - the roles and expectations of the group. For example, is the group making the decision, or are they making a recommendation that is going to another power authority? Is there someone in the group that has decision-making power?

Go forth and make decisions

Now that you have your vision, you’ve identified options and you’ve determined how to identify your priorities, you can go forth and start to make decisions as a group. Warning: this can be a slightly messy process. Acknowledge that this can be tricky, and create an open space for people to share their opinions and ideas. Having an external and neutral facilitator can be very helpful.

Good luck!

Resources

Setting Community Priorities Presentation. HC Link 2010

Priority Setting- Four methods for getting to what’s important. OHPE Feature article 2010

Priority Setting Process Checklist. PHO 2011

Focus on What’s Important. County Health Rankings & Roadmaps

Do you have tools, resources and/or experiences to share? Use the comment box to tell us your ideas!

 
 
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