Ethics In The Planning Workplace

When should planners speak up over objections of principle, and when should they simply follow orders? Richard Carson offers advice for three situations planners may face on the job.

June 11, 2001, 12:00 AM PDT

By Richard H. Carson

Rich CarsonIn the day-to-day administration of a planning program you may be directed by your supervisor to do something that you believe isn't consistent with established policy. This is especially hard for planners to deal with because we are professionals who believe unquestionably in the fairness, objectivity and sanctity of the process. This article attempts to help sort out the important differences between the legal, ethical and political implications of following orders we don't believe in. There are important differences in the three and in how you as a planner should react to following orders you don't agree with.

Some management decisions that do not follow a legally established planning process can present civil and even criminal liabilities to a government agency. In other words, such inconsistent actions could be adjudicated through the courts. However, there are also ethical and political liabilities that may not be adjudicated. Something may be unethical or political, but these are not equivalent to being illegal. In the end, you must decide which is which.

Planning directors and managers in city, county, regional and state always work between the planning staff's belief in the process and the external stakeholders (i.e., elected officials, citizens, developers) who pose a very different political reality. What may be categorized as favoritism by staff may be seen as common sense by the manager.

Example 1

A planning manager allows a developer to make changes to a building without having the revised plans submitted and approved by the building official. By doing this, the manager has exposed the local government to both a civil and criminal liability if an accident happens during or after construction that can be tied to the change in construction.

Example 2

A planning manager allows a modification to a subdivision without making the developer, who is the mayor's brother, go back through the review process. In this case, the developer is allowed to plant trees that are of a less hardy variety and smaller size than originally stipulated. The reason for allowing this change is because there aren't any trees of the type and size required to be found locally and buying out of the region is much more expensive. The manager's decision to help the developer out financially does not pose a legal liability. However, it can still be construed as being both political and unethical.

Example 3

Planning staff did not immediately send a subdivision plan to engineering after the Planning Commission approved it -- which is the process -- and a month goes by with no action on the development. In fact, it is simply on the lead planner's desk. When the planning manager finds this out, he or she moves the subdivision ahead of all projects being worked on by engineering. This is not standard practice because every project is processed in order. In this case the action taken is not illegal, and is arguably not political or unethical.

The moral imperative for the planner is certainly greatest in the first example. The issue is possible loss of life or destruction of property because of the government's negligence. However, there is certainly less of a moral imperative in the second example. By the time you get to the last example there is no moral imperative left.

I believe that your response to following orders needs to be tied to the severity of the problem. In the first example you could disagree with your supervisor because of legal liability issues, you would be justified in going over your supervisor's head, pointing it out to legal counsel and even resigning to avoid becoming an accomplice. If you disagree because of the political dimension of the second example, then you may want to simply tell your supervisor of your concern. Depending on his or her reaction you may want to start looking for employment with an organization you believe has a higher ethical standard. However, if you disagree with the inconsistent action in the third example, then you may want to reevaluate whether you should even be in the planning profession.

Related Links:

APA/ACIP Ethical Principles in Planning
AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct


Richard Carson is the director of Clark County's Department of Community Development in Vancouver, Washington the webmaster for the Internet website Planning UTOPIA. You can read more of his essays in his Internet publication "Common Sense".

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