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Thread: Public sector planning versus private sector

  1. #1

    Public sector planning versus private sector

    Hi all,
    I'm currently considering studying town planning at masters level and was just curious as to the differences between working as a town planner in the public sector, to working in the private sector? Are there key advantages/disadvantages between the two?
    Thanks for your help.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    They are totally different, most of the time. Public sector planners either do (1) development review (2) play the political game to try to get good planning to occur or (3) are political people trying to get their Mayor (or similar) to look good and advance her/his agenda. On rare occasions, public sector planners will do some of the planning studies or rezoning work themselves. Public sector planners can sometimes become very vested in the future of their municipality and therefore may sometimes care less about the results of a particular study and more about the politics of convincing people to make positive changes to the community.

    Private sector planners mostly write reports such as planning studies or zoning. Their goal (beyond doing good planning work, which I like to think is a goal of all good planners) is to keep the public sector planner that pays their bills happy. They are less vested in the future of a particular place, and usually need to spend most of their time making sure they complete the scope of what they agreed to provide. However, it is in some ways a more fulfilling job because the results (the reports) are much more tangible than the results for a public sector planner (who may or may not end up getting her/his way in the long run).

    I once heard the difference summarized as public sector planners getting power to make change and private sector planners getting money (or the spare change!) Its not quite that simple but that's a good start to understand the difference.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    I disagree with that. I'm in the private sector and do code enforcement for several of my clients. Consultants can be contracted out to smaller communities who do not have the financial resources to hire a full time staff planner, so we do the entire role of the planner. In many communities, there are some planners who do current planning and some planners (usually higher up but not always) who do long range planning (comprehensive planning, master planning, transportation studies, corridor plans). Some public sector planners do both current and long range, in addition to several other types of planning (research, design, historic preservation, economic development, etc.). In the public sector, planners become very knowlegeable about the community/county/region they work for, but are not as knowlgeable about planning in other areas.

    Private sector planners who are prinicipals of their firm OWN a stake of the company, so they are vested. I think it is much much more difficult for a prinicipal in a private firm (especially a smaller one) to just walk away and look for a new job. They usually have to put up money or their sales recored as "collateral" in order to make partner (in addition to an impressive track record on the job). Politics can also make or break contracts with consultants, especially if there are politicians who want to reduce expenditures.

    The public sector tends to pay a higher salary with better benefits for entry level planners than the private sector. IMO, private sector planners earn less is because the prinicipals like to take a larger slice of the pie (and no, we are not starving or anything like that). However, I think that changes the higher up the corporate scale. Planning directors (in the public sector) can easily make six figures. However, their salary is capped by the budget and it is harder to make more money. On the other hand, principals will always make the most money in any firm, and their salaries are not controlled by budgets. The harder you work, the more money you are likely to make.

    I would like to a principal of a firm (or preferably start one up my self). I do contract work on the side in addition to my work with my firm. IMO, the public sector planners, especially those with no private sector experience, do not always understand the time, dedication, and risk that job procurement through networking requires: you can't just do your job, you have to do it better than the competiting firms otherwise you might loose your contract.

    Hope this helps-

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    Points well taken. These may be in part geographical differences. In the area I work there is not much code enforcement going on that isn't done by municipalities. In fact, most often it is the Building Commission or Superintendent of Inspectional Services who does most of it, while the planners only do zoning review once something comes to the municipality.

    I don't disagree with you about the risk and such of private sector planning However you didn't mention interest in "changing the world" at all. Even with all of the failing of public sector workers - and there are many - I do find that there are a large amount of them that stay when they have the skills and competence to go private (and make more $$$) because they feel they have a greater impact on land use and planning in the public sector. When I was in the private sector I saw some people who felt that way but mostly people seemed interested in the success of their firm, which makes sense given the risks you describe...

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  6. #6
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
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    Here's another perspective: in the public sector, you're given a job and can pretty much go do it.
    In the private (or nonprofit) sector, you're given a list of "deliverables" and are goaded into accomplishing them with the least expense possible.
    May not be true of better private firms...
    ...Moving at the speed of local government

  7. #7
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    The majority of the private sector jobs in Florida seem to be with firms that work almost exclusively for developers. Only a few firms seem to be able to get municipal contracts. This may be a geographical distinction but I thought it was worth mentioning since Masswich and nrschmid referred to private consulting in terms of working for public sector clients.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Can't we all just get along?

    It seems that this forum has quite a track record of private consultant bashing. In the words of Rodney King:

    "Can' we all just get along.."

    Planners whether private or public who uphold the AICP code of ethics (which most planners whom belong to APA or who are just decent stewards to our profession do) IMO are all after the same goal: creating a built environment or spearhead change for a better society.

    Yes, private consultants have to concern themselves on "deliverables" or meeting the scope of work, but i must say as a private consultant i do care with compassion the outcome of a project that i work on and how that effects the community in the long run, whether it is for better or for worse (i would have to say that 90% of my projects deal with growth that enhances the community through better design and/or better managed growth). As a private consultant i do work for developers, however i also do work municipalities, but not as a day to day contract planner, but rather as a "long range planner" which to me is the fun stuff of planning, such as redevelopment, directing new growth areas, creating park standards, creating open space and dealing with agriculture mitigation and the preservation of agriculture here in California. Yes I get to do the public outreach on projects such as workshops, visioning sessions, and the public meetings, which to me is the best part of all the projects.

    My counterparts on the other side of the table deal with day to day operations such as dealing with the public at the counter, code enforcement, and processing plans. As a young planner i find this boring, and minutia as to go to board hearings and planning commissions writing the same staff report using the same template all the time. I felt coming out of college that this would suck the life out of me, and thus i choose to get a job with a private firm where i could work on a project from site analysis, to design alternatives, to the final comprehensive plan with public hearings.

    There are good and bad points about any job whether public or private. I guess what i am trying to say is, you need to ask yourself whether you see yourself as a public planner trying to deal with the politics, staff reports and tread through the machine of the bureaucratic process, or do you see yourself with a little bit more creativity in the private realm with a crappy base salary, but a chance to move up in a firm and have a better salary each and every year as you work hard for you firm and gain valuable experience to take with you when you plan to leave your cushy private sector job for a the public side and that cushy Calpers retirement system. But hey, that's just me.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
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    Sorry- I am sure there are private sector firms that care very much about their product. I'm the victim of a get-it-done-cheaply-so-we-can-check-it-off type of place. I care very much about the projects, which is why it upsets me so much. I know plenty of private firms that make sure they give a quality product when their name is on something.
    I think I'm just more geared towards a good public sector job where the government cares about the services they deliver. I just wound up in the private/nonprofit world through a misstep.
    ...Moving at the speed of local government

  10. #10
    Cyburbian plnrgrl's avatar
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    Having worked on both sides of the fence, there are pros and cons to both.

    With the local government, at least in long range planning, you get to work on what you see is needed, whether it be a neighborhood plan or a traffic analysis. It is more self rewarding because you can see the fruits of your labor - how your plan flows in reality - over time.

    The private for-profit firm (at least with my experience) your dealing with big money where the developer wants his project to be the best out there, so you typically can work with more innovative ideas and concepts. There are more resources available to you.

    Conversely -

    For the private sector, you work on whatever your client hires you to, whether you like it or not. It's all about the bottom dollar. Time is money, and time sheets are a nuisance. Even filing your paperwork is time billed to the client. Once you complete the task, it's done. You don't get the experience of revisiting it years later to see how well it worked.

    The public sector day is filled with meetings with citizens on what they can do with their property, which if they don't like your answer, can become very political. Sometimes your forced into making decisions you don't agree with, just because the citizen is an old buddy of the mayor. It can be tedious, and very stressful.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Keep in mind with the private sector though it also depends alot on which firm you work for. If you are really lucky, you might get to work for a firm that is seeing tremendous growth in the planning department, so you might get performance raises or annual raises above a COLA.

    I am an entry level planner at my firm, however I am also the only planner in my firm (we also do landscape architecture and environmental work). I get to go to all the conferences, APA meetings, non-APA conferences, etc. I took a pay cut from another job to work here, and my portfolio is bursting at the seams I enjoy working here, but work can be stagnant at times. I am lucky if I get anything above COLA at the end of the year (I make up for it by doing contract work on the side out of my home).

    IMO, raises in the private sector are influenced by your ability to complete the project within the budget and meet various deadlines, etc.). As you move up the ladder, you are also measured by your success as a project manager (I have yet to do that here) and by your ability to procure work through earning contracts. I desparately want to earn more experience at a senior level, but will probably have to find work at a different firm (with a larger planning department). No matter how successful you think you are, your compensation as a worker (raises, bonuses, perks) are ultimately determined by the owners of the firm (in a larger firm, it is harder to influence these people). I consider myself very ambitous and feel short-sighted alot of the time (but I am gaining valuable experience in the process, and I know I will not be stuck here forever. I would not be the planner today had it not been for where I am working).

  12. #12
    A lot of these answers also depend on what area of planning you're interested in. Most of the material I've found breaks down like this:

    Transportation Planning: private sector, on average, makes significantly more than the public sector. Public sector transportation planning is dominated either by Public Works/Engineering types or MPOs (who pay notoriously low salaries on account of their dues-based structure)

    Urban Design: good luck finding a proper design job in the public sector

    Community/Economic Development: These are often lumped together in planning job titles and college departments, but they're often times at loggerheads. Community tends to mean social justice and equality. This is no money to be had when your customers are the poor and downtrodden. Economic development is, functionally, economics for planners. Based on the APA's salary survey and several interviews with industry personnel, the highest earners tend to come from this area of the discipline, both in public and private (with the private sector paying marginally to significantly more).

  13. #13
    Cyburbian plnrgrl's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by nrschmid View post
    I am lucky if I get anything above COLA at the end of the year (I make up for it by doing contract work on the side out of my home).
    I'm surprised you don't have a no compete clause in your contract. We had that in our orientation paperwork with the private sector.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    As long as there are no conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest, I am free to do the same types of work that we do in the office. Any graphics or text that I use as samples of work just have to have the company logo on it. So yeah, I am very lucky.

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