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I have a Problem With Your “Issues”

Good planning requires clear problem and goal statements. Calling a problem an “issue” is ambiguous, which is a real problem.
Todd Litman | September 15, 2013, 9pm PDT
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Planners are professional problem solvers – we manage the process through which problems are defined and potential solutions evaluated. This process requires clear statements concerning what stakeholders want or oppose.

I therefore have a real problem if people apply the term “issue” when referring to something undesirable. It is weak language which implies but fails to clearly state what the process is intended to accomplish.

I appreciate how this trend began. Countless psychologists have assured their patients that being overweight or gay, or dropping out of college are issues to be addressed rather than problems to be criticized. In that context it is quite appropriate to use non-judgmental language. But planning is concerned with judging – discerning the best solutions to a particular set of problems. In that context, I find the word “issue” grating like finger nails on a chalkboard because it implies that there is no way to determine what is desirable or undesirable, so the planning process is futile.

Our most important tool is clear language concerning what stakeholders want, how much they want it, and what they are willing to trade off to achieve a particular outcome. Here is the hierarchy:

  1. Identifying an issue simply says that something deserves attention, but is ambiguous. For example, if somebody says, “Affordable housing is an issue,” it could mean that they believe there is a shortage of lower-priced housing and want more, or it could mean that they feel frightened by the presence of lower-priced housing in their neighborhood and want less.
  2. A goal statement identifies in a general way what is desired. “We want more affordable housing” is a goal statement. An objective is a specific way to achieve a goal. “Our city should support multi-family housing development to increase the supply of lower-priced housing” is a clearly defined objective. “Housing is unaffordable for many lower-income households” is a good problem statement.
  3. An even clearer approach establishes measurable performance targets. For example, you could establish a target that all households be able to find suitable housing that costs less than 32% of their total budget, or even better, that costs less than 45% of their household budget for housing and transportation combined, since housing is not really affordable if it is located in an inaccessible area with high transportation costs. Measuring the number of households in a community that spend more than these thresholds helps measure the problem and provides a reference for tracking progress toward that goal.
  4. The strongest approach defines specific performance targets and consequences for meeting or failing to meet them. For example, a housing plan could include a requirement that developers sell at least 10% of units at a price that will cost less than 32% of the budget of households in the lowest income quintile or contribute $10,000 to an affordable housing fund. This defines not only what we want, but how much we want it, and what we are willing to do to insure it is achieved.

While I’m at it, let me mention some other opportunities for clearer planning language.

The word “choice” can be confusing because it is both a noun (as in “options”) and a verb (as in “decision”). For example, the term “travel choice” can refer to the options available to travelers or the decisions they make. For that reason, I suggest using “travel options” and “travel decision” instead of “choice.” For example, it is clearer to say that “Improved walking and cycling conditions helps increase travel options” rather than “travel choices.”

Similarly, I recommend using the term “difficult” rather than “hard,” since the former has one clear meaning while the later has several. For example, the statement, “The sidewalk project was hard” could mean that the process was difficult or the resulting facilities are solid.

Another term that should be used carefully is “conservative,” as in, “These are conservative cost estimates.” In this context “conservative” is assumed to mean “cautious,” which seems good, but traffic engineers will often use the term to justify oversupplying roadway or parking capacity, reflecting an assumption that more is better. In that context, oversupplying roadway capacity tends to increase project costs and induce additional vehicle travel, which actually increases resource consumption and so is the opposite of “conservative.” In that context I recommend the term “lower bound” or “upper bound” estimate, which more clearly indicates the likely direction of error.

These are examples of “flutter words,” which have multiple possible meanings and so require more effort to understand. For example, it somebody refers to “travel choices” you need to think about which meaning applies, depending on context; there is less potential for confusion if “travel options” refers to the range of modes available, and “travel decisions” refers to the modes that users actually choose.

These are just a few examples of ways that planners can apply clearer language. What other examples can you offer?

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