Week 4 (September 23) -- Understanding the Planner's Role

There has always been a strong democratic strain in much (though hardly all) public planning theory and practice, in part in response to the sorts of challenges to democratic participation discussed in Sidney Verba's article. John Forester’s famous article on “Planning in the Face of Power? is an example. In contrast, Mike Brooks presents what he argues is a more realistic approach to planning. He calls his approach a “political feedback strategy? and also a “strategy for coping.? Is there an inherent incompatibility between Forester’s and Brooks’ views?


Incompatible? No, I don't think so and Brooks even indicates that there is some merit to the "misinformation" approach to planning. He argues, however, that it would be naive to expect most planners to take on that role because it is not expected or rewarded in bureaucratic systems. Unfortunately, this makes a great deal of sense. In one planning course last year, a TA told a story about contradicting her boss before the city council of Albuquerque regarding the efficacy of a low income mortgage program. The program was still approved by the council and as the TA indicated, her testimony against the program would have been detrimental to her career in the city had she not already decided to attend graduate school.

Finally, I found the Brooks piece to be less normative and more descriptive of current planning practice. I suppose that's useful, but doesn't really address the theory and practice gap that many academic planning theorists seem to worry about.

I don’t see Brooks and Forester’s arguments as incompatible, I think they are arguing separate but related points. Forester argues that planners are able to control democratic participation by the type of information they make available to participants, who they invite to participate in different stages of planning decisions, and how they organize attention around an issue. Therefore, planners should “anticipate misinformation before the fact? and work to counteract the various ways public information can be manipulated.

Brooks argues that political realities affect how planners take in and disseminate information. He argues that planning is a process that is shaped by these political realities and the feedback planners receive from relevant individuals. Again, planners are supposed to suggest plans anticipating that others will offer feedback and alter the final plan. In Brooks’ argument, planning decisions are merely experiments and planners should create plans anticipating that they will be altered based on feedback from relevant individuals and clients.

Both authors emphasize the need for planners to be “aware? of the various influences over them and “anticipate? theses influences in order to counteract their potential negative outcomes. While they differ over the specific source of this problem, both authors believe that planners should overcome political realities by expecting that misinformation and political disagreements will occur. Although I think both authors present positivist views of planning practice, I think they offer very few practical suggestions for how planners can move beyond anticipating these realities to act within this system.

I agree with the previous 2 comments in that these two opinions are not incompatible. One aspect of both articles that I appreciated is that they both placed their own views with the context of thought about planning and politics. And, both presented a vision of public planning that did not seem naive or simplistic. Both recognized power and politics and the ways that planners need to think about these issues in the context of their daily work.

I believe that Forester's ideas of a progressive planner could be utilized within several stages of Brooks' "political feedback strategy" if a planner indeed accepted Forester's views. If the client is understood to be the public in general, Brooks' strategy would give a follower of Forester additional methods to implement "progressive planning." At the same time, it would be quite easy to use Brooks' model in a way that did not highly value the public, especially those with less power.

I agree with the above postings, both authors discuss how information and politics can be used to the advantage of the planner and their end goals. I think it will be really interesting to see how the case study respondents have incorporated, if at all, Michael Brook’s article. Brook’s article as a response to the planner as holding “minor walk-on role under highly constrained conditions? frames his argument to use politics within planning in an interesting manner. This frame work of avoiding a "minor role" within the system could be highly applicable to the situation the planners within the politics of establishing urban growth areas in St.Claire County found themselves facing.

While John Forester's article focused on describing the approaches used by a variety of planners in order address politics, or ignore, politics within their efforts. I found that Michael Brooks’ strategy on how planning “ought? to be carried out began to take the theories and apply them a series of stages (acknowledging that real planning situations rarely, if ever, are as clean) was more than just observation, working to map out a strategy for incorporation of theory into practice.

I also agree that these planning theories are not incompatible, just different approaches, possibly because of the years that separate the articles. While Forester uses more of an investigative approach – who are the agenda setters – Brooks uses a more practical way of analyzing an issue – communicating with all stakeholders. It is helpful for practicing planners to use bits of both approaches. I believe planning can be a very frustrating occupation if one expects to always have their plans and procedures approved and agreed upon.

As Forester suggests, by investigating who the decision maker is, who is setting the agenda and who is influencing the public, a planner can grasp an approach that suits all involved, even though it may not be the planners first choice. If the planner truly feels their alternative is the best to solve a solution, using the Brooks ‘political feedback strategy’ may help both the outcome of the issue as well as help with the planners own well being and attitude towards their workplace.

The strategies provided in both the Brooks and Forrester articles are similar in that they provide processes emphasizing the importance of information and how it should be disseminated, responded to, and utilized. However, to say that they are compatible is not necessarily true. Brooks outlines how planners should operate within a given framework. He gives step by step directions for planners to become listeners, responders - people-pleasers. Meanwhile, Forrester articulates that it is planners who should define that framework in order to frame their agenda and balance political power. Those who define the rules of the game are more likely to win.

In the real world, it would be nice if planners were able to set-up the rules and define the game (so long as information was accurate, fair, and clear and their objectives were benevolent). However, as we saw in the case study, there are often key political players and special interests who are able to assert more power. The real issue is not that planners should be the ones setting up a planning agenda, but how they can gain leverage in the power struggle and use it in a way that serves the public's interest.

I think the two articles are compatible in that they both illustrate the importance and power of politics in the field of planning. I think that Brook's article overall, and the Political Feedback Strategy in particular, is much more relevant to ethical practitioners.
Forrester's theory that planners should define the framework for decisions is a little off base. I think that ethics sometimes is what differentiates planners from politicians. Planners, especially in the public sector, are usually charged with presenting decision makers with all available information to best guide the decision making process. If a planner chooses to hide or manipulate information, are they any different from a decision maker who chooses to ignore certain information?
The Political Feedback Strategy on the other hand is a useful and ethical approach to presenting decision makers with all available information and alternatives. Decision makers and politicians should then be held accountable for the decisions they make, if they are presented with all of the necessary information and options to move forward.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs