The Art of Planning and Politics

Most planners disdain playing politics. Yet political astuteness was, and continues to be, a predominant characteristic of the field's pioneers and a prerequisite for achieving change.

Richard CarsonEvery great religious movement was created by an inspired individual--like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or Krishna--who had no formal religious training. The religion then became institutionalized and bureaucratized by a priesthood who often became self-serving and more piously self-righteous than their founder in carrying out their duties.

Planning is no different. In the states where planning is mandated--like Oregon, Washington and Florida--the planning programs were created by inspired citizen legislators who were not trained professional planners. In order to carry out these progressive public policy initiatives a bureaucratic priesthood of planners was created.

Planners are good at carrying out the programs that others create. However, most of us are not inspired visionaries and very few of us have the political skills to make such a vision a reality. This is why most of the great planning pioneers came from other professions. Sometime ago the American Planning Association announced the top six "most significant planning pioneers" in Planning Magazine. The winners came from such professions as architecture, journalism, landscape architecture and law. There was not a planner in the bunch. And although these folks were drawn from different professions, they did have one common attribute--they were politically astute.

Part of the problem is that most planners disdain playing politics and therefore are bad at it. It is not an important part of our educational training or ongoing professional training. I find it curious that the planning curriculum of academia does not require students to read such classics as the Art of War by the Chinese general Sun Tzu (6th century B.C.) or The Prince by Renaissance statesman Niccolo Machiavelli (1515). Neither do we read the more contemporary social commentary such as Community and the Politics of Place by Daniel Kemmis (1990) or Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky (1988).

But the art of planning is about policy making, politics and power. And you do not have to be a politician to play political hardball. How can we achieve anything if we do not want to know the damn rules of the game? We go around telling people that our truth will set them free, but we are clueless about the political reality needed to achieve it. In any culture there are ways to achieve cultural change, but you must understand the local rules before you can achieve anything. Quite the contrary, we have a bad habit of taking enlightened statutory goals and making them tedious, onerous and overly complex through an administrative rule-making process.

We tend to leave the larger political sea changes to the primary special interest protagonists who are polarized between the development industry and the environmental constituency.

Most planners use the word “political” as a pejorative term. It usually is used when referring to elected officials who get in the way of us doing our job. The latter is usually caring out development codes or land use plans created by past elected officials. We see no inherent lack of logic on our part when we do not want the current elected officials to change the rules created by previous elected officials.

Many of the more politically astute planners eventually change careers and become community development directors, city managers or county administrators. It would be fair to characterize such people as “paid politicians.” Political, strategic and organizational planning skills are as important as land use planning skills to such people. For some reason, such people become appointed officials and do not want to be an elected official. This is probably because they like being their own boss and do not function well as part of a governing body.

So how do you become more political? Politics is the use of strategy and tactics to compel or cajole elected officials, voters and special interest groups toward the goals you have set or have had set for you. So you need to:

  • Learn to lobby and negotiate behind the scene.
  • If you expect good public policy to reveal itself in a public hearing, then you are gambling with the outcome. Good public policy is created by the dialogue and collaboration that occurs before the public hearing.
  • Working behind the scenes does not mean you lie or misrepresent the facts. Indeed, it will be the strength of your word and character that people will come to rely on.
  • Develop a broader understanding of how the other government agencies and special interest organizations involved actually function.
  • Identify both the visible and the invisible movers and shakers.
  • Determine what it is a decision-maker is passionate about and what it is they want to achieve.
  • Let those with the political power think that your great idea is their great idea.
  • By the way, here is some parting political advice from the Chinese warlord Sun Tzu:

“Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small. The difficult things in this world must be done while they are easy, the greatest things in the world must be done while they are still small. For this reason sages never do what is great, and this is why they achieve greatness.”

Richard H. Carson is the current director of planning for Clark County, the fastest growing county in Washington state and is the previous director of planning for Metro, the Portland area regional government. He is also the Internet editor for the Open Directory Project’s Urban and Regional Planning category that has some 400 website listings and maintains his own site About Planning.



Planning and Politics

Dear Mr. Carson,

I read with some considerable interest your recent article in

Planetizen. You are right on the money about planners being rotten

politicians. You are also right on about planners carrying out others'

policies with turgid zoning regulations and incomprehensible

procedures. You are also right about the visionaries being raised

elsewhere but in the planning profession. You are also right on about

the tussle between politics and the development community.

What you did not mention is that everyone keeps their jobs as long as

they behave according to assigned roles. They cannot lead in new

directions. They can only influence the politicians and the developers

to do something more responsible but never to carry out a vision. That

means incrementalism that does not lead to either smart growth (whatever

that is) or attractive development. Everyone is stuck "doing their job"

but not much changes.

I have worked as a planner for 42 years. I worked for several

visionary administrators and politicians in the beginniing. Ed Logue

was one of them and he was supported by a reform Boston mayor. Once

urban renewal and community development block grant funding disappeared,

the developers were free to roam to create sprawl. The politicians got

reelected because of their economic development achievements; and the

planners kept their jobs because they carried out politicians'

policies. Sprawl, ugliness, and gridlock were left in the wake of these

decisions, though some of the central cities were revived only because

of economic necessity.

I want to know from you how these conditions can be reversed. Smart

growth is just another buzz word to attach disconnected efforts to stop

sprawl, ugliness, gridlock, and environmental degradation. There is no

plan to carry it out, as far as I have seen in the DC area. Whose got

the vision: the planners, the politicians, the developers?

For last several decades, I worked to bring GIS and, later, 3D GIS to

the planning profession to help do a better job of planning and

justifying new strategies. It's been a hard sell. And the tools are

mostly used to make pretty maps or pretty 3D pictures of tomorrow

electronically. The technonerds are very involved in the mechanics of

creating maps and 3D images. But the planners have not learned, nor do

they have the curiosity, to use these technologies to plan. I have seen

planners use them in public to justify their plans; and I wouldn't buy

any one of their ideas, because they lack analysis and a strategy to

carry out their plans in the political and development worlds. Where

previously the visionary planners/administrators could overwhelm the

politicians with visions and the access to federal funding to carry them

out, today change is fomented by the political guile, not a criticism,

of people like yourself. That is not enough to stop trends that are so

entrenched and that so many people gain from their maintenance.

So, for me, your saying that planners need to be better politicians is

only convincing to a point. If they were better politicians, what

visions and strategies that make real change could be created by

planners who have none; and, if they do have them can't justify them or

make convincing arguments? Further, who has got the guts to say: "No

more ugly sprawl, no more gridlock, no more development until impacts

are delineated and policy choices about what is acceptable and good are

made." Years ago, at least some communities tried to control growth by

implementing "infrastructure" guidelines. Development had to be

supported by existing or plannned/funded capacities for streets, water,

sewer, schools, and all the public facilities that make new development

work. That was some kind of vision. What takes its place today?

My subtext here is that there exists a kind of collusion between the

regulatory but non-visionary planners, the politicans, and the

developers to keep things the same for their job security, political

longevity and economic benefit. Who is going to break the trend?

Finally, I am appalled but not surprised that all of them in the DC

metro area have the guts to decry sprawl, pollution, and environmental

degradation, when they don't even use current technology and knowledge

to influence and sell another direction.


Konrad J. Perlman

Reply to the Comments

The commentators to Rich Carsons' article confirm my suspicion that they are concerned with the ethical separation of planning and politics or have been converted to the notion that they should entangle themselves in the political process. But I also hear about behaving according to assigned roles. I have to disagree that the planner is like an advocate, such as a lawyer, and is, therefore, without the impulse to present analytically supported planning beliefs and strategies aggressively and politically. The planner should not be the servant of the politician and should not rely on reports that noone reads. The politician, in my experience, knows and cares little about planning, unless it impinges on his/her political future. He/she should not be treated as omniscient. Before all of you try to debate the ethics of being political, consider the makeup and goals of the politicians. Planners have to lead the politician to a vision of tomorrow that is politically supportable. And that means breaking current trends in sprawl, ugliness, and gridlock and promoting a far better and fiscally responsible tomorrow. It also helps that the planners' vision is the politicians' as well. I have worked in reform-Mayor cities; and those Mayors worked to promote vision. That is the kind of situation Rich Carson is talking about. Let us not be passive, disgruntled, frustrated civil servant planners. The only analogy I can think of came out of 9/11. That is, if a high jacker or terrorist tries to take over a plane, all of the passengers should rise from their seats and, together, with knowledge that some of them will be injured or dead, wrench power from their captors and stop the violence. Violence is what is being done to the landscape we plan; and we have to rise up to stop it. Not easy, very political, very visonary, threatening to job security (a professional life in jeopardy). But what's the choice?

Planners as technicians

Carson is showing off a big shift that seems to be occuring within the planning profession. People working within this profession generally fall into one of two categories. The first is the technical planner who knows a lot about planning techniques and methods, but sees their role as one of service to their elected officials. The second is the advocacy planner, who works on behalf of a consituent group to represent interests and advocate for improvements in a particular area of community life.

Land use planners, those who are most concerned with the "big picture" fall almost completely in the first category these days. The field of planning has become so specialized that the planners with big ideas seem to gravitate towards more specialized subdisciplines such as housing, environmental protection, or economic development. I don't have a reason for this distribution, but there are smarter readers than I out there who probably do.

While I generally agree with the points in the op-ed piece, I think that Carson is looking only (or at least primarily) at those in the first group. There are still planners out there who know how to work the system and understand the need for political astuteness, but they tend to focus their efforts on one area of planning rather than at on the system as a whole. In this regard, he is right that the big ideas are not likely to come from planners while this remains the case.

Planning & Politics

General Patton - (I think it was) said that that "war is politics by other means." I have often said to yonger planners that planning is politics by other means too.

It has always seemed to me that the notion that planners could be apolitical as essentially naive - its like saying that journalists are unbiased. Way back when the planning profession first emerged it was connected in spirit the "technocray" movement that suggested that public policy should be taken out of the hands of corrupt and ignorant elected offficials and placed in the hands of trained professionals i.e. planners, city mangagers, engineers etc.

That concept is fatally flawed due to the fact that neither the public nor elected officials have ever been willing to concede decision making to persons not directly accountable to the public. The concept is fundamentally inconsistent witrh the idea of democracy.

I think it was Churchill who said that "democracy is the worst form of government in the world except for all the rest." Yes democracy is messy and often produces less thatn optimal results. But what alternative is better

It seems to me that the planner's role should be dictated by who he/she is working for. It seems to me that the role of a planner is somewhat analgous (although not completely) of an attorney. Attorneys, as agents of the court are not compleltly free to do as they please (though they often do). But at the same time they are expected to be advocates of their employer, be it a client, an agency that employs them etc.

The ethical cannon that planners "should represent the public interest" is also flawed in that it assumes that planners somehow have a unique insight into what the public interest is. By placing themselves on this sort of indefensible pedestal planners often render themselves irrelevant.

I suppose this is a long roundabout way of agreeing that planners should be political. The truth is that we are all political wether we acknowledge it or not. The only question is how do we go about it. In that lies the true question of ethics.

Replies to Andrea, Carl and Rich


You would be right to be concerned if what Rich was talking about was having all the decisions made before a public hearing. But what Rich is really getting at, in his own endearing way, is the fact the the issues planners end up dealing with are often too complex to summarize neatly in the short staff reports we are usually limited to providing. In order to make certain that the issue is understood to begin with, in all its complexity, it is often necessary to meet with elected officials (or planning and zoning board members) individually, in advance of a meeting, to go over the material and explain why you've recommended what you've recommended. This is especially necessary with controversial issues; the last thing you want to do is end up with a situation where your elected officials are blindsided at a meeting, because public opposition came from a direction your memo may not have anticipated. A thorough briefing of the decision makers in advance helps to avoid that -- and it is also no automatic guarantee that your recommendation will go through, so you aren't 'deal making'. To make a deal, the planner would have to be on an equal footing with the elected official -- able to vote for one of that officials's pet projects in exchange for having the official support your idea. In that arena, you don't have what it takes to 'make a deal'. What you are really doing is briefing in advance and advocating your findings. That isn't 'politics'. It's just common sense. I think Carl would agree.

And Rich -- I think this is the first time I've heard of planning as a religion and planners as a 'priesthood'. I've always thought of this profession as more of a craft (sorry, Andrea, but I had no idea there was such a thing as 'planning theory' until years after I'd finished my Masters. My program at Pitt was a hands-on, practical program filled with internships and opportunities to do the grunt work for local government planning departments while sitting in on the meetings where our data were discussed and directions debated.) Craft people have many different skill levels; those who can create beautiful solutions to problems do so. Those who are more skilled in carrying out other people's solutions also contribute. Since my understanding of religion is that it involves some sort of worship of what is regarded as the Divine, I'd love to know what you think it is that planners are worshipping!

Planning tainted by politics

Instead of beginning my career in a traditional planning position, I began as a legislative aide to a county councilmemeber outside of Washington, DC and served as the point person on her staff for planning related issues. I was frustrated and dissatisfied at times that a large portion of the work I was doing was not planning related and that I was constantly stuck in the realm of politics, deals and PR. What I found is that all fields, planning and non, that interface with the public sector are all subject to the political arena and those departments and programs that do well are those that are directed by people who learn the rules of the game, what cards to pull and strategies to take to get the support (which is usually in the form of money and work programs). I often followed planning programs in their early stages long before they came to the council and found that while the planners had a huge influence on the work that was produced, there is a huge amount that is out of their control after a staff report is written and the project is reviewed by the planning board/commission and then by elected officials.

This doesn't mean that the altruism and objectivity that planning purists strive for is lost in the shuffle. This happens when the "political game" is not played well, but what I think Mr. Carson is trying to point out is that what often is viewed as a stumbling block for planners is really one of the best tools that a planner has. Politics can actually become your best friend.

I am now in a small city working as a mid-level planner and have found that elements of my former job in politics that seemed like a "waste of time" and seemed to be "tainting" my real direction toward a more traditional planning experience actually put me further ahead in my career than I ever thought.

Shuttle Diplomacy is Ethical

Thanks for your comments on the article. There is a lot of debate about the role of the planner. Is he or she an advocate or a facilitator? Not everyone would agree with you comment about planners needing to by "apolitical." Also different elected bodies (city councils, county commissions) will give you different directives about how aggressive or passive your role will be.

I take it your main concern are about two comments:

“- If you expect good public policy to reveal itself in a public hearing, then you are gambling with the outcome. Good public policy is created by the dialogue and collaboration that occurs before the public hearing.

- Working behind the scenes does not mean you lie or misrepresent the facts. Indeed, it will be the strength of your word and character that people will come to rely on.”

Note I am talking about "dialogue and collaboration before a hearing.” Not necessarily back room deal making. Getting the neighbors, the developers and the environmentalists to agree is "collaboration." I think the best analogy is to compare it to the "shuttle diplomacy" required between nations, or between union and management.

Ethics and Politics: What is right?

Mr. Carson:

I am a graduate student taking a theory class which is focused on ethics. While I agree that planners must be politically astute in order to "get along" and to make certain that they achieve buy-in on their plans, some of the ways in which you suggest we become more astute seem contradictory in some way to the code of ethics. Are planners not supposed to be remain politically neutral? We should not have a political affiliation which is made public. We should not be negotiating behind the scenes as you suggest before bringing the dialogue into public light. How is that representing the community interest if decisions are essentially made before they come to the public for comment? My understanding of the planning profession thus far is that we are to be apolitical, so that we can represent all interests. Call me green, but is what you suggest truly ethical? I don't mean to be combative, I am truly wondering what is right. I'm sure that planning school is much different from working in the field. Anyone have a comment?


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