Max Izenberg: Informing Decisions in Uncertain Times

Max Izenberg and Noah Johnson work in the Pardee RAND courtyard

Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

"So many people don't understand DMU," student Max Izenberg (cohort '18) says of the set of methods known collectively as decision making under uncertainty. "When I started at Pardee RAND, even I didn't."

The Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty selects a Pardee RAND student each year to help with their work. Izenberg, the 2020 DMU fellow, is honest when asked — as far as he knew — whether he had any relevant background before signing on? "Absolutely not!"

In fact, Izenberg had been working much more closely the Center for Qualitative and Mixed Methods (C-QAMM) and its director, Ryan Brown, on a project in Sitka, Alaska.

"I'd been doing research on the social science side. I do a lot of work on disasters and human response, trying to understand how people make sense of disaster risk and how they prepare or react," he said.

But Pardee RAND students often explore multiple methodologies, and another aspect to the Sitka project is decision analysis. Brown suggested he reach out to DMU directors Andy Parker and David Groves about their position.

"When I started my DMU fellowship, Andy clarified that, actually, I was already working with DMU methods!" he said.

Because RAND researchers created the method known as Robust Decision Making (RDM) and so many Pardee RAND alumni have specialized in it — notably DMU codirector Dave Groves himself — Izenberg's confusion was perhaps understandable.

"At first, I conflated RDM with DMU — lots of people do. There's a huge community of practice," he said. He recently took Pardee RAND's course on RDM — his "first formal instruction" — with professors Robert Lempert and Steven Popper, two of the method’s creators.

RDM is, generally speaking, a method for large organizations with many stakeholders. But other DMU methods are equally helpful to individuals and smaller groups, Izenberg has learned.

By way of example, he described his dissertation: "I'm using a mental models approach to understand insurance purchasing decisions by small governments for disaster assistance, how to finance disaster risk insurance. I knew there was a lot of uncertainty among municipal governments; now I know the methods and models to use to approach it," he said.

“I knew there was a lot of uncertainty among municipal governments; now I know the methods and models to use to approach it.”

"In fact," he continued, "I'm trying to reconcile two different mental models: how insurance companies measure uncertainty, versus how municipalities do. FEMA's strategic objective is to close the disaster insurance gap, but you can't do that until you know why and what drives insurance decisionmaking."

As DMU fellow, Izenberg's primary role is knowledge management. "The previous fellows set up a foundation that the directors want to expand, to create a taxonomy and decision tree model, so researchers can explore which methods are important to consider for proposals," he said. "I also review tutorials, try to improve our intranet, and network with different communities of practice to socialize methods and build partnerships, such as with C-QAMM."

The aspect of the fellowship that he most appreciates is the mentorship he's received from Groves and Parker, and the opportunity to apply what he's learned.

Izenberg came to Pardee RAND with a public health background, which he said "gave me a useful social science background and the language to think about social policy problems."

"The way public health practitioners approach problems is useful for all projects," he said. "We see the sum as often much greater than the parts when looking at different network effects."

DMU, he said, fits right in to that perspective.

"For me, DMU helps me organize my thoughts," he said. "I appreciate the DMU method for its humility; that's really appealing to me. We look at what is lacked, what is missing or insufficient when considering uncertainty. The DMU method explicitly requires participatory approaches and stakeholder consultations. I love to see it used in practice."

After he graduates, Izenberg said he hopes to continue to work directly with communities.

"My work was field-based before I came to Pardee RAND; I'd like to be an interlocutor between communities and massive bureaucracies, in the disaster management space. Whether I work with a state or federal agency, I want to ensure that there's equity in how states or municipalities can prepare financially and otherwise for disasters."

— Monica Hertzman