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Improving The Purpose And Accountability Of The American Planning Association

When membership is not much more than a subscription and decisions are made with little group input, the APA needs to adjust the way it interacts with its members, according to self-proclaimed "APA lifer" Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP.
April 11, 2007, 10am PDT | Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
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Photo: Leonardo Vazquez

Robert Moses didn't care too much for professional planners. But he would have felt at home in the corporate offices of the American Planning Association.

Moses was the "master builder" of New York City. He reshaped much of the city's landscape by leading the creation of bridges, cultural institutions, sports arenas, parks and playgrounds. He was also an arrogant, top-down leader whose efforts critically wounded areas like the South Bronx. In his blind faith in himself, he would have done the same to beloved areas such as Greenwich Village and Battery Park if he hadn't been stopped by activists who demanded more say in planning.

The APA is experiencing a high point in its history, with no signs of an apex. According to staff there, membership has grown tremendously –- from 36,000 a few years ago to 41,000 now. Its assets have grown from $12 million in 2002 to more than $14 million in 20051. It is undoubtedly the largest and most influential planning organization in the United States, and probably the world.

The APA also engages in behaviors that, if it were a person like Robert Moses, we might call arrogant and self-centered. Its members – if that is even the right term – are customers who are to be informed, not peers to be engaged. Though many planners join to get the same benefits other professionals find in their trade organizations, the APA appears to focus more on selling them publications and workshops. Volunteers – who donate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of labor to APA – are treated not so much as assets as unpaid staff whose primary mission is to support the APA.

Lessons From Planning

Plenty of planning efforts in the last 20 years have shown that you can have better and more sustainable outcomes by working together with your clients. Yes, some things take longer to be resolved, but the long-term benefits tend to outweigh the short-term costs. Similarly, the APA can adopt a more collaborative and accountable culture and be even stronger for the 21st century.

There's another reason why the APA culture needs to be more collaborative and accountable. Our membership fees provide nearly half of the APA's total revenue -- $7.9 million out of $16 million in 2005. And the members are also the people most likely to buy its publications and pay to attend its conferences and workshops.

This situation is not one person's fault. It is a problem with the organization's culture –- the set of beliefs and practices that determine how people within the organization think and behave. But while the cultural problems may not be the leaders' fault, they are now their responsibility. If they fail to act, they simply perpetuate the problems.

Before we get to the evidence, here's some background:

I'm an APA lifer. I've been involved with APA at the local and national levels for nearly a decade. I am the Chair of the Latinos and Planning division of APA, and since 2004, a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners AICP Examination Review Committee. I was the co-chair of the New York Metro Chapter's Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee from 1998-2004. I was also on the APA's Diversity Task Force, and contributed to its final plan for increasing ethnic diversity in the organization. Over nine years, I've listened to national and local APA officers and senior and executive level APA staff (both current and former). I want to also emphasize that my comments are my own, and do not reflect the opinions of members of Latinos and Planning or the AICP Examination Review Committee.

The Evidence

Let's say you were going to create a plan that you knew would disrupt the lives of your stakeholders. Would you wait until the plan is complete then try to sell it to your stakeholders? Of course not. Many of us would consider that unprofessional and unethical behavior. Most of us would consider it at least unwise. If you don't give people a say in their future, you make them very angry.

On December 6, 2006, APA announced a detailed proposal that would require all members of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), for the first time, to get continuing education credits: 48 credits (typically measured in hours) over a two-year period. And at least 24 of those credits have to be derived from products that APA owns or has a hand in. The requirement would have a major financial impact on members. Based on conversations with several leaders of APA chapters and divisions, the national leadership created an entire program apparently without much consultation from chapter or divisional representatives.

From the rash of comments in Planetizen, Cyburbia and other venues, a lot of people thought it was a terrible idea. So how did APA/AICP respond? By cutting the number of required credits from 48 to 40. This smells a lot like the developer's trick of proposing a 10-story office tower, then after hearing loud community opposition, coming back with the 7-story building that he wanted in the first place.

When you consider how little APA and AICP engages you as a member, think about this: When was the last time APA national sent out a survey asking what benefits you would most appreciate from your membership? When was the last time your elected APA or AICP board representative reached out to you to get your opinion on a matter?

A Lack of Accountability and Openness

With hundreds of pages, the APA website is an excellent resource for all kinds of information related to planning. So, if you wanted to get in contact with your local representative, you would probably just log in as a member and go to the "Leadership" website to get your representative's contact information. Too bad it's not there. The lack of contact information on the leadership page sends a poor –- and I hope unintentional -- message to the membership.

But it goes beyond that. We don't know how our elected representatives vote on any issue. Most of us don't know how they think about a particular issue –- such as continuing education requirements. And since members are not regularly consulted on these issues, how can the people we elect do a complete job of representing our interests?

There has been one positive sign: APA did publish an annual report last year, for the first time in several years. That's a good first step toward accountability.

Members or Subscribers?

My local museum calls me a member. When I'm paying $50 a year, I don't mind the museum board not consulting me about major initiatives. Because I'm really just a subscriber.

But when I'm paying $200 to $400 a year to be part of an organization that I believe shares my interests, I want to know that they care about what I think. I like Planning magazine and the fact that APA is fighting the good fight in Washington D.C. -- but is that alone worth the money?

Despite its name, the American Planning Association is not set up to be an association of planning professionals. It is an "educational organization," set up to educate planning professionals and members of the public. If you want the benefits of an industry association, you have to mostly create them yourself –- which is what those of us who helped build divisions and chapters have done –- or pay extra and go to a conference.

Building a Collaborative Culture

A collaborative and accountable culture can be just as effective and efficient as a top-down culture. Yes, some things do take longer to get done. But when they are done in the right way, they are more sustainable and supported by a greater number of people. The small cost of engaging people early on saves you much bigger costs at the end of the project.

Here are some steps APA/AICP can take to be more collaborative and accountable:

  1. Adopt and implement principles of collaborative leadership at all levels of the APA national board and staff.
  2. Create a Collaborative Planning and Leadership Policy template for all major initiatives proposed by APA or AICP, including clear steps for elected representatives, appointed officials and staff to follow when undertaking and managing any major initiatives.
  3. Conduct 360-degree evaluations of APA board and staff members by collecting comments from supervisors, colleagues, and direct reports.
  4. Conduct annual membership surveys to gauge the interest of members, what benefits they most enjoy from their membership, and what benefits they would like to see. The survey should also measure members' feelings about APA/AICP, and their perceptions of the organization over time. These findings -- and responses to them – should be included in all annual reports and organizational development plans.
  5. Have the APA Board and AICP Commission meet at least quarterly to discuss and vote on issues. Meetings can be held online to reduce travel and time costs for volunteers.
  6. Revise the APA/AICP website to make it easier for members to contact their elected representatives. Change the bylaws to allow underperforming elected representatives to be removed by a recall vote.
  7. Announce all open positions on committees, task forces, etc. Use an RFP process to recruit new members.
  8. Require elected representatives to make regular reports to their members indicating their own accomplishments and identifying how they voted on measures.
  9. Require minutes and voting records of leadership meetings be made available to all members.
  10. Make two representatives from the Chapter Presidents' Council and the Divisions Council voting members of both the APA Board and the AICP Commission.
  11. Divide APA into an educational organization/foundation and an industry association.
  12. Clarify and distinguish AICP from APA. This may involve untangling the knot of shared staffing among the two agencies. They cannot be truly independent if they are fully conjoined.

Cultural change takes time, will and energy. Those who are comfortable with the status quo will be inconvenienced. But they need not be hurt. If they work to promote positive change, they –- and all of us –- will have a stronger and richer American Planning Association.

1: The tax returns of the American Planning Association, as of all nonprofits, are available to the public. The APA's Form 990 tax returns for 2002 to 2005 can be seen at the Foundation Center's 990 Finder page.

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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