Planning as Misguided Faith in the Impossible
Russell Degnan

As part of an ongoing attempt to define what planning actually is, some six years after I started learning about it, I've begun a reading group with some equally misguided collaborators. To that end, we plan to work through assorted key texts from the past thirty years, beginning with the low-point of rational planning, that, in a way, marks the beginning of alternatives.

Wildavsky, A. 1973, "If Planning is Everything Maybe it's Nothing", Policy Sciences, v.4, p.127

Rittel, H., Webber, M. 1973, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning", Policy Sciences, v.4, p.155

Published in the same journal, these two papers present two fascinating criticisms of our ability to plan, one expressing hopelessness, the other bordering on contempt.

Wildavsky begins by trying to define planning, distinguishing between attempts to plan - to create a plan, or to make rational decisions - and the ability to have control over the future. The semantic confusion over what planning is, in many ways being the key theme of the article, but one that needs resolving if one is to judge the efficacy of planning as an activity. Is it an activity to be judged according to its inputs - the quality of its planning - or its outputs - its success. And more importantly, when are we actually engaging in planning, in order to judge it; as Wildavsky says:

"Since practically all actions with future consequences are planned actions, planning is everything, and nonplanning can hardly be said to exist"

The remainder of Wildavsky's work consists of dead-ends, each pursuing some conception of planning to show that, in fact, planning is always something else. Thus, planning as causation - the ability to predict the effect of actions, and therefore choose them rationally - is, regardless of whether there is a plan, merely another form of decision making.

Planning is, therefore, merely a form of power - "the probability of changing the behavior of others against opposition" - or politics. But power is necessarily limited, and planners, not being dictatorial governors, are also limited, perhaps irreparably. The plan itself shares a similar limitation. Objectives must necessarily change with circumstances, but too many changes imply a lack of planning whatsoever. To plan in an adaptive way avoids the problem of "future control", and becomes, by Wildavsky's reasoning, indistinguishable from any other form of decision making. A logical pattern repeated for planning as process - as goal directed behaviour, indistinguishable from goal directed decision making.

But if planning is just decision making, then Wildavsky argues, perhaps instead it can be judged against its intention - did it succeed? Here too lies a problem: when a plan fails, was it the fault of the plan, or was the plan itself merely a conduit for the decision making process. Plans stop being intentions to deliver and start being symbols of a policy process that is rational, efficient, coordinated and consistent. These goals though, are, again mere platitudes, indistinguishable from other forms of decision making contained within the machinations of bureaucratic governance.

The true meaning of the tile is thus derived. Planning is either indistinguishable from any other governance activity, or, it is a badge of honour, worn by professionals as a means of arguing for their specific forms of governance, and a (possibly costly) article of faith for those who believe that decision making should be rational and planned.

While unarguably true in some ways, Wildavsky clearly over-reaches in others. Planning may be merely dressed up decision making, but it is not clear whether the costs of those plans do indeed outweigh some improvement in the decision making process. In the past I've argued against a formal bill of rights, on the basis that they rarely seem to matter when the rights are being questioned, that indeed, like plans, they are no more than well intentioned articles of faith. An interlocutor disagreed, arguing that those symbolic words meant something - they affected the relations of power, merely by existing. Plans too, may do that, provided they point somewhere - which is not necessarily the case these days.

There is some hope to be derived from Rittel and Webber's equally disparaging article on the technical problems of planning. Rather than stretching across the gamut of planning definitions, Rittel and Webber consider planning from a position of power, where planners are capable of directing and solving problems from within a sympathetic government. Here the problem of planning is not governance but ability.

Planning problems, they argue, are wicked, meaning they: are ill-defined problems ("the formulation of a wicket problem is the problem); are never ending; have ill-defined solutions; have innumerable potential solutions; are essentially unique; are merely the symptom of some broader problem; are immune to logical hypothesis testing; and require solutions that work.

Effectively, Rittel and Webber argue something now taken for granted: that social problems are intractable by purely scientific means. Although their formulations are somewhat repetitive when taken together. Providing a solution that works is only necessarily if a solution could be judged objectively, which they have already dismissed. Being essentially unique is irrelevant if the problem is defined by the actor. As it is often said, "if all I have is a hammer, all problems look like a nail"; as above, such an approach is only a failure if somehow viewed objectively.

Stepping beyond mere problem solving, Rittel and Webber come to a similar conclusion to Wildavksy. In a pluralist society, planners are incapable of solving problems objectively, and are therefore only political players, not value-free experts. But as with Wildavsky, they overstate their conclusions, taking out the nuance whereby some solutions might still be considered "better", even in a pluralist society, and seemingly dooming planning completely:

"We are also suggesting that none of these tactics will answer the difficult questions attached to the sorts of wicked problems planners must deal with. We have neither a theory that can locate societal goodness, nor one that might dispel wickedness, nor one that might resolve the problems of equity that rising pluralism is provoking. We are inclined to think that these theoretic dilemmas may be the most wicked conditions that confront us."

Finer Things 14th August, 2008 23:55:33   [#] 

Comments

Planning as Misguided Faith in the Impossible
I like to think that planning is a loose coalition of prejudices.
Aaron  15th August, 2008 23:25:39