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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.
October 21, 2002, 12am PDT | Richard H. Carson
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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.

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