Will the American Institute of Certified Planners Live By the Principles it Promotes?

The continuing education program of the American Planning Association's American Institute of Certified Planners has stirred much controversy amongst members, educators and officials. Many agree the system's flaws need to be addressed. But where is the public discussion?
April 21, 2008, 5am PDT | Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
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Photo: Leonardo Vazquez

The American Institute of Certified Planners proclaims itself the judge of quality planning in the United States. For this reason, it created and manages a controversial mandatory continuing education program, Certification Maintenance (CM). Later this month, the AICP Commission will discuss the program's design, which is opposed by hundreds of planners. Will AICP practice the sound planning principles it preaches?

Last month, a group of planning educators who provide professional development to planners argued on Planetizen that the CM program, as it is designed, will deprive planners of affordable opportunities for lifelong learning. The group's essay argues that CM is predatory, confiscatory and unfair and is a conflict of interest for AICP. An accompanying petition offered reasonable strategies to reform the program. (Full disclosure: I am one of the authors of the essay.)

More than 600 people, as well as representatives of several planning organizations, signed the petition. (These include Planners Network, the APA's New York Metro Chapter, and a vice president of the New Mexico chapter.) Several offered their own comments. Most complained about the unfair costs the program puts on educational providers and planners. But several saw a bigger issue: how AICP and its parent organization, the American Planning Association, govern themselves and their programs.

Seeking Public Discussion

If hundreds of people in your community raised reasonable concerns about a planning program you developed, how would you respond? Perhaps you might call a community meeting, or ask community elected officials to reach out to community leaders. The AICP Code of Ethics encourages us to be sensitive to the concerns of others and to provide opportunities for their meaningful involvement in planning. What did AICP leadership and staff do? Write defensive letters that mostly ignored the comments made in the Planetizen essay and petition.

For more information, read "AICP's Continuing Education Program Needs to be Fixed" and sign the online petition.

The AICP Commission will meet from 8 a.m. to 10:35 a.m. Saturday, April 26, at Bally's Hotel, Skyview 4 Room, 26th Floor in Las Vegas. Anyone attending the APA National conference is welcome to attend the meeting.

Though several petitioners and the New York Metro Chapter asked the AICP Commission to hold open dialogues on the issue, the AICP has ignored those requests. What's more, the Commission has allocated less than an hour for discussion and action among AICP Commissioners at its upcoming meeting during the APA National conference. (That is not much time for a group that meets publicly only twice a year.) It appears that if AICP members are engaged, it will be after decisions are made.

"I am shocked and saddened by the 'if you don't like it, get lost' elitist attitude of our supposedly enlightened AICP leaders," wrote one petition signer who is a longtime APA/AICP member. He also said, "for an organization that supposedly prides itself on dialogue, meaningful input, and fairness of decisions to pull a stunt like AICP has is disgraceful and I submit that it violates at the very least the spirit of the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, Item A. 4) (a planner must strive to give citizens an opportunity for meaningful impact on the development of plans and programs)."

A staff report has been completed and shared with AICP Commissioners. But no part of the report is being shared with AICP members before the meeting. (FYI: AICP Code A.1.d.: "We shall provide timely, adequate, clear, and accurate information on planning issues to all affected persons and to governmental decision makers.") As a former member of the AICP Examination Review Committee who has had many confidential conversations with current and former APA and AICP leaders, I can confirm that this pattern of secrecy is not unusual for the organization. I don't know whether this is about hiding unpleasant facts, or about an overzealous focus on order and efficiency. No matter what the intent is, the effect is a command-and-control, secretive style of governance. That style of leadership was typical for a 1950s urban renewal agency. But is it appropriate for a 21st century membership organization?

The Guise of Engagement

Just as disturbing is that AICP seems to make no distinction between sales pitches and dialogues. AICP leaders and staff claim that they have "engaged" more than 700 educational providers. But what they call engagement we would call promotion and public relations. Even if AICP consulted with a tiny number of continuing education providers, they couldn't represent the diversity of interests in the field. Since the program was passed last April, there has never been an open forum for AICP members and continuing education providers to discuss the Certification Maintenance program.

AICP took one good step in December 2006, when it unveiled the concept of the Certification Maintenance program and gave APA and AICP members a month to share their comments. Many planners – including the essay authors – supported mandatory continuing education in principle. But AICP developed its onerous and unfair fee structure without real input from the continuing education providers who would be forced to pay the CM fees (and likely pass them on to their customers.)

It's not that they didn't know. There have been quiet complaints by AICP members, educational providers and at least one APA chapter for a year. For months, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning has been lobbying for improvements.

The APA's New York Metro Chapter, which represents 1,200 in New York City and its suburbs, is so concerned about the way AICP is handling the CM program that it took the rare and courageous step of writing an open letter to AICP leadership. The letter says, in part:

"We strongly advise that the AICP Commission act quickly to take a step back from the implementation of the current program and that it evaluate the carefully considered comments about the impacts of implementation on both members and CM providers. There is every reason for concern that the program, as currently outlined and administered, will create harm to AICP and its members."

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP is an Instructor at Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and Director of its Professional Development Institute. He is a founder of The Leading Institute, which promotes models of collaborative leadership and management in planning and community development.

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