Week 3 (September 16) Questions

To what extent is “planning through consensus building� a remedy for the kinds of biases and inequalities present in our democracy? Does the scale (neighborhood, city, state) matter?


As an ideal, consensus building appears to be framework that levels power relationships and includes groups that have historically been isolated or excluded from planning processes. There are some problems with the assumptions of the consensus building approach, starting with the idea of "ideal speech" and with the notion that groups can represent public interest. The latter argument is the subject of the Schattschneider article and the former is simply unattainable. So, sure, consensus building has its merits, but I wouldn't agree that it it always a remedy. From other readings for other classes, consensus building has a very mixed record of success. Oftentimes, it seems that the "success" of consensus building is attributed to the fact that a myriad of groups were able to meet and develop a dialog, even when their proposals or solutions ultimately go down in flames or are so generic that they do not prove useful for decision or policy making.

I found myself wanting to believe the Innes response to Altschuler, and the base claim is dead-on that the discredited top-down planning model needs a thorough redress. However, the best anyone can say is that it is a work in progress. Because the planning process is a supremely intertwined system of subjective interests mixed with objective realities, extracting understanding is really a laudable priority. The question I think finally returns to this: does the planning process better serve democracy by understanding less about facts and opinions (and their interrelations) and dealing unintended consquences? Clearly, yes, but collective design at any scale also requires collective responsibility. Ultimately, I think for more perfect speech to occur a culture of planning needs to be developed. We ask planners to assume ethical duty in their dual role as a planner-stakeholder, why shouldn't stakeholders also assume similar ethical obligations of a stakeholder-planner? It does not seem that these obligations are fairly distributed and the end result is both imperfect speech and an open door for shoddy policy.

In the above, I engaged in some imperfect speech... Clearly, no, democracy is not better served by understanding less about anything! A thousand pardons.

I would like to piggyback on a point brought up by Brad in the original post regarding this question. I agree that there are many ways to measure the “success� of a consensus building process. As Brad stated, the initial success is bringing stakeholders into a room together to express their views. This process of bringing stakeholders together provides an aspect of transparency to a planning or decision making process. Even if a consensus cannot be reached, it is productive for people to know that their opinions have been heard first hand not only by planners or decision makers, but also by fellow stakeholders. Often people may have pre-conceived notions regarding what other groups or stakeholders might be thinking, without taking part in any dialogue. People typically will be more accepting of a decision, even if it is not in their opinion the best possible decision, if they know that their views and opinions have been considered. Therefore, as Brad said, I think the simple act of bringing stakeholders together, often can be considered a success.
With that being said, it is obviously successful if stakeholders can be brought together and consensus can be achieved. One of my goals for this class is to not only learn different participation tools or strategies, but also to learn how to measure and evaluate the participation process. Knowing how and why these tools succeed or fail is an important element of the public participation process.

As the Task Force on American Democracy indicates, the need to increase representation and participation rates in our democratic systems is clear. I think consensus-building is an important planning approach because it aims to bring as many groups to the table as possible and equalize peoples’ opportunity to voice their concerns. The pitfall of the consensus-building approach is that its effectiveness rests heavily on the planner’s ability to facilitate group dynamics and “guide� not “synthesize� the opinions of the group toward one agreed-upon solution. A tall order, and one I find hard to believe could work every time! As the Puget Sound case study tells us, simply bringing stakeholders together is not enough to build consensus. The planner is expected to take an active role; not in formulating the plan itself, but in facilitating the group to formulate the plan. These are two very different skills, and not all planners are necessarily qualified to do both. I am intrigued by Jeremy’s suggestion that stakeholders should “assume ethical obligations as a stakeholder-planner.� I’m not sure if it’s realistic to expect that stakeholders will look far enough beyond their own interests to fully take on that role, but it is certainly something to wish for. While consensus-building has the potential to be a highly successful planning approach, planning organizations need to carefully train their planners in facilitation skills if they are going to attempt this process.

I like what Jeremy said: "collective design at any scale also requires collective responsibility". I also agree with the desire to hop on the optimism train and agree with Innes. However, in my experience in Comp Planning, I find it a hard pill to swallow. I think a culture of planning needs to happen, too. I see a lot of internal conflict and circular discussion in Comp Plan meetings with city staff. If there is weakness in consensus building internally, how can we expect to promote stakeholder consensus? Does anyone think there is a generation gap in planning culture? There seems to be in my workplace in terms of how people appraoch participation and consensus both internally and with the public. Do you think our class has the opportunity to seize Innes' optimistic approach? Or do you think we're destined to get too comfortable and become reluctant to put in the extra energy to be good planner-stakeholders seeking consenus and particpation?

I think anyone would be particularly hard-pressed to make the argument that it's a completely worthless tool and that it doesn't accomplish some good. It is also a great way to seek out common ground and establish shared values. However, I think there are a number of inherent problems with consensus building. First, most definitions rely heavily on stakeholder involvement. This is already problematic. Stakeholders range from disenfranchised residents of inner-city communities to millionaire investors. Stakeholder is used as an umbrella term to consolidate the actual stakeholders and the burdenholders. Second, there also seems to be an over-reliance on discourse. Absent any action-oriented individuals or institutions, it's difficult to transfer discourse into a development protocol that benefits all parties involved. Third, there is the myth that consensus building represents some sort of unified public interest. The public interest is made up of such a multiplicity of interests and is in reality the best-funded or most-lobbied-for interest. There is also the risk of tyranny of the majority. Fourth, Innes refers to consensus building as "informed deliberation." This begs the question of whether the different knowledge sets that residents, developers, planners, and policy-makers bring to the table translate into differential power relations. If knowledge is power, than more knowledge is more power. Fifth, and lastly, institutional leverage (i.e. zoning code, ordinances, etc) plays an important role by setting the parameters for most development or capital improvement projects, essentially disempowering any non-state entity right off the bat. Do these variations in knowledge, power, persuasiveness, spheres of influence, and stakeholder status compromise the merits of consensus building or is this just the rose’s thorn?

Greta's question of are we destined to get too comfortable is interesting. If we do "seize Innes' optimistic approach" as Greta says and cannot achieve the results we want, at what point do we cave and become the typical planner? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. To a certain extent, we would need to keep doing the same thing over and over if we hope to change things. But when and how do we accept things aren't changing?

I meant then not than. I hate bad grammar.

I'd like to build on Greta's comment on the "generation gap". I've found in my experiences that the older planners tend to be more disillusioned with the planning process than the young pups. Some of them approach the participation process as a hurdle that needs to be crossed before moving on with the project rather than a meaningful step that can actually enhance the plan in question. Perhaps this is due to the especially technical nature of some projects they work on; however, I would subscribe to the idea that they have become comfortable and resigned to the fact that they do not have the resources or time to commit to what will most likely (as shown by past experience) be a process that yields very few meaningful results. I think that in a perfect planning world, we would have the time and resources within the comprehensive [or other] plan process to involve stakeholders in a meaningful way, but in the confines of a resource-starved public sector, I would go back to Brad and Brant's statements that "the simple act of bringing stakeholders together" can accomplish a lot in the way of giving stakeholders a way into the process.

As many have said above, consensus building has both positive and negative affects on planning process. And as David said that consensus building relies heavily on stakeholders’ involvement. A majority of them are people with higher social and economic status (SES), and only their voice will be heard. This left out the unheard voice of the people at the lower SES. In turn, this contributes to bias and inequalities in our democracy. Statistics have shown that, a very high percentage of people with lower SES are not member of any organization or group that is associated with their profession. Hence, one of the obvious tasks is that we need to have more involvement of people across the spectrum of the SES in consensus building process in order to achieve what it is intended to accomplish.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs