Planning Agencies and the Community
James B. Cook
Department of Community Development
The structure of local governments is getting more complicated and confusing. New commissions, departments and agencies are added to the organization of local governments frequently.
While governmental structures seem unnecessarily complicated at times, they are a natural and normal reflection of the growing complexity throughout the world.
Citizens and public officials must improve their abilities to control and properly use the complicated structures of government that democratic values and the circumstances of modern living have created. That requires effort and involvement in a constant process of planning, evaluating and adjusting the functions of local governments.
The question is not whether there will be governmental planning, but rather how to regulate the scope, improve the quality and maintain democratic planning. Some of these questions can be answered by knowing how an official government planning operation relates to the community at large.
When officials and citizens are concerned with how official planning fits into their community, they depend on the enabling law and the formal rules of organization to understand how planning works. These laws and rules are important factors indeed. But, actual planning agencies, even with the same enabling laws and rules, may relate to the community in extremely different ways. The following classification system provides officials and citizens with new criteria for comparing how planning organizations relate to their community.
This system of "ideal types" does not answer the question of what ought to be done. It gives a place to start a new perspective of official planning agencies and the community which can lead to new considerations.
Citizens interested in their community's official planning operations often ask: "How does all this planning activity relate to what is happening in the community?"
Usually, the response to this question is phrased in terms of:
- The formal organization of the planning commission and its staff
- The legal responsibilities of the planning commission to the chief executives and legislative bodies of the government units involved
- The composition and intended role of the various advisory committees
These elements are significant to the formal structuring of planning operations, but such information seldom helps citizens classify the planning activities in a way they can evaluate the operation.
Different planning agencies
Even those with similar formal organization, with identical legal responsibilities, and with advisory committees that closely resemble each other — may relate to the community quite differently.
Explaining the official planning operations in terms of legalities or formal organization does not give sufficient evidence of how it performs in the community at large.
The relationship between a planning agency and the community is largely determined by what the people involved consider as their purpose.
Of course, legal requirements and patterns of formal organization have substantial effect. These features should not be neglected. Yet, whether intended or not, how people act and react within a formal setting actually results in different types of planning operations from one community to another. The expectations, attitudes, skills and values, of both officials and citizens, vary considerably from one area to another. The kinds of concerns felt may not be alike. The severity of community problems, the degree of cohesion within the community, the accepted modes of making community decisions, and the purposes of the official planning operation are the kinds of things that are dissimilar about communities.
These variances account for the different kinds of approaches easily distinguished in official planning agencies. It may not be conscious it may not be planned but, in fact, behavior determines the relationships of planning to the community more than formal organization does.
Using categories not based on formal organization can help citizens classify the type of relationships between the planning operations and their community. Five categories adequately stereotype the common characteristics of planning-community relationships. No community-planning operation, in fact, will correspond exactly to any of the types presented. However, these stereotypes help identify and measure the performance of any planning agency.
The five categories are called:
- The Isolated
- The Agency Oriented
- The Imposing
- The Imposed Upon
- The Immersed.
The Isolated official planning operation maintains a low level of contact with the community at large.
The planning group, its staff and consultant raise and discuss questions among themselves. Often, difficult and sophisticated studies or reports are made about various issues. The results, however, are simply fed back into the planning operation. Aside from occasional news releases, the results of planning efforts do not find their way into the community's decision-making process.
Frequently this isolated, small corps of people develops a high level of information and knowledge about the community. This, however, does not particularly benefit the community because the planning group maintains no effective relationships with other officials, agencies, voluntary groups or citizens. For the most part, those directly involved in official planning do not communicate with anyone outside their limited network.
A planning group may become the Isolated type for many different reasons, but the common characteristic is an extremely low level of interchange between the planners and other elements of the community.
The Agency Oriented
The Agency Oriented official planning operation directs all its efforts to the demands, concerns and needs of an outside agency. Usually, the outside agency has a particular program or grant money that some portion of the community wants. Planning is done simply to qualify for this program or grant.
In recent years many communities have established planning organizations in order to meet the requirements of an external agency. Some of these continue to operate their planning completely oriented to this agency. What they plan about, what procedures they use, the form, content and timing of reports they produce — all are directed by the criteria of the outside agency. Those involved in planning feel the purpose of their operation is to please the agency so they will qualify for its program or money.
Not all planning groups started by stimulation from an outside agency remain in this agency-oriented pattern. But some, year in and year out, plan only for the review of a particular external agency. They do not intend for the planning to affect the community at large except for the particular program they want.
This type of planning operation often produces extensive plans that only a handful of people in the community know about, but which circulate around the country, through agency channels, as examples of good local planning.
The Imposing type of planning operation intends to affect the community by developing a plan and then imposing this plan on the community.
During plan development, the planning operation appears similar to the Isolated type. While the studies and planning are underway, the group has little contact outside those directly involved in the organization. Once the plan or part of the plan is complete, an organized effort is made to get the community, or at least selected segments of it, to accept the plan. This phase of the operation is commonly called "selling the plan to the people."
The community's part in this type of planning is basically to implement the program as devised by the planning group. The planning group develops relationships with the community as part of a strategy calculated to bring about adoption and implementation of the plan.
The reasons for taking this approach vary from one case to another, but usually the integrity of the plan in practice is more important to the planning group than the integrity of the community.
The Imposed Upon
The Imposed Upon planning operation shows no initiative. The official planning organization does nothing except in response to very specific pressures and demands. Various organized interest groups in the community largely determine the questions with which the planning agency will deal, how they will be dealt with, and what the planning agency's recommendations are to be.
As long as there is no strongly organized opposition, the planning body tends to satisfy those who forcefully establish their point of view. If counter demands come from several organized sources, the planning operation is likely to be immobilized. Because the planning group cannot function under its own directive, it usually becomes confused, insecure and unable to act when conflicting demands are received from several sources.
The Imposed Upon planning group makes no input into the community decision process on its own. It performs a ritual of giving formal recognition to various interest groups' projects as they come along.
The Immersed type of planning operation works as a regular part of the community. The planning group maintains relationships with external agencies, local officials, interest groups, ad hoc groups and citizens. Many avenues of access to the planning operation are open to everyone. Multiple channels for sending information about what is happening and what will be happening in the planning operation are used to reach the community.
The planning group will accept input from anyone in the community, as well as from sources outside the community. Activities are initiated by sources within the planning group, and in response to input from outside. The output of the planning process is transmitted into the community. Feedback, even negative feedback, is accepted from the community, and when appropriate, leads to corrections in the planning process.
The planning group itself controls and carries out a variety of procedures on its own. At the same time, the group accepts that it is only one part of the enterprise that creates and determines community policy.
In order for planning to be effective in a community, all the following may be necessary:
- Studies and plans expressed on paper
- Funds and programs available from external sources
- Opportunities for knowledgeable people to get their ideas across
- A means to get projects and recommendations of special interest groups considered as they relate to the whole community
None of these constitute the purpose of planning, however. The purpose of the official planning operation is to improve the community's ability to
- Adapt to the expected
- Create the desirable
- Avoid the undesirable
In American communities, experience indicates that this is practical only when there is broad involvement in the planning process. The talents, energy and knowledge of highly trained professionals, governmental officials and the citizens are all necessary in the planning process. Planning, to be practical, must be a joint enterprise among many different kinds of people.
Adopting and implementing plans are continuous processes. The Immersed pattern provides the best model for the relationship between the official planning operation and the community — workable plans can be developed and carried out for the purpose of improving the community as a whole.