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Thread: Why are planners marginalized by politicians when it comes to decision-making?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Why are planners marginalized by politicians when it comes to decision-making?

    Whether we like it or not, the role of planners in local government is usually administrative. Planners are foremost responsible for enforcing the local regulations and are only secondarily responsible for strategic plan-making. The degree to which planners are solicited for strategic guidance/leadership by elected officials differs greatly between jurisdictions. Some rely heavily on planners for policy formulation and long-term planning guidance, but these organizations are generally the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, politicians make decisions without seeking the input of planners or go against staff recommendations. This, of course, begs the question: why do politicians ignore the advice/input of planners?

    I got to thinking about this issue the other day after a staff recommendation went down in flames when the developer “got political”. It was a site plan for a signature commercial building and staff had requested some improvements to the architecture and site design, reasonable things that would’ve resulted in a better project (and one doesn’t need a planning degree to come to this conclusion). There is a neighborhood plan for the area and the project will get all sorts of tax breaks/incentives. After the call came in from the Mayor’s office I just buried my head in my desk, thinking: Does the political leadership think nothing of the opinions of planning staff? Why do they hire us in the first place? Couldn’t they at least hear our side of the story? What the hell is going on here?

    I have been in this field long enough to know that special interests get what they want, particularly developers and politically-connected engineering firms. But this time I feel blatantly disrespected and sold out, and I'm seriously thinking about a career change.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Whatever you do, do NOT accept this role. My last job, Planning management would actually change the staff recommendations and staff reports to suit the needs of Council out of fear. This went so far as to NOT recommend staff take on code changes to suit the community at large because to political body would not like it. ....

    Part of the reason for my ever-growing resentment to planning. (there. I said it.)
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Richmond Jake's avatar
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    We're a necessary evil. They use us for cover. We use them for cover (you know you do).

    On a related note: Where in the world is the perfect job that is not influenced by the movers and shakers? Based on the concept of supply and demand, the ideal job wouldn't pay much because there are few of them and lots of us.

    My recommendation: Suck it up and move on to the next challenge.
    Annoyingly insensitive

  4. #4
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    don't ask me these things while I'm sitting in a Warrant Committee meeting

    having worked for private and public, I agree with RJ, it's not unlike working "for the (wo)man" or your client that wants to do something dumb -

    other irritating tidbits:

    the nice thing about planning is, for the most part, nobody dies

    the lights go on tomorrow morning whether I thought something was a good idea or not

    it's not about us, it's about them

    politicians represent people, people vote them in so unless they get voted off, what they want is the bottom line

    the largest taxpayer is a constituent too

    and if someone is breaking the rules, document that you knew it, saw it, and said not to do it

  5. #5
    Cyburbian el Guapo's avatar
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    This is the million dollar planning question. I wonder what those rocket scientists at APA have come up with as an answer, and how much it will cost me to buy the book from the planners advisory service?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Plan-it's avatar
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    Politicians make independent decisions and that is a good thing. They answer to the public in the most direct way.

    We like to think that all of our judgments are perfect, but let us not get blinded by ambition. Remember Robert Moses? How about those great "planning" ideas like urban renewal, when we put interstate highway systems through thriving African-American neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Sometimes it is important for us to see where we have been as a profession to understand where we are now.
    Satellite City Enabler

  7. #7
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by RichmondJake View post
    We're a necessary evil. They use us for cover. We use them for cover (you know you do).

    On a related note: Where in the world is the perfect job that is not influenced by the movers and shakers? Based on the concept of supply and demand, the ideal job wouldn't pay much because there are few of them and lots of us.

    My recommendation: Suck it up and move on to the next challenge.
    The typical life-long bureaucrat response. Exactly the reason why I want out of this field, because the public sector is filled with people like you who won't rock the boat and belittle those that question the status quo with crap like, "go find me the perfect job".

    If you want to have an intelligent conversation about why our profession is such a failure I'll be happy to do so, but don't pander me with veiled insults

  8. #8
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    A former co-worker of mine equated us as hired scapegoats once. Seemed true in some cases. When things go bad, the planners take the blame. When things go well, others share the glory.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  9. #9
    Cyburbian SGB's avatar
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    Were your staff comments consistent with the design recommendations of the neighborhood plan? If so, did your comments explicitly state so?

    Does the local media even pay attention to whether local policy documents (such as the neighborhood plan) are being followed and implimented?

    Political leaders can ignore policy documents for a number of reasons, including:
    1) No legal recourse is anticipated. (i.e. citzen lawsuit)
    2) No political recourse is anticipated. (i.e. the electorate won't remember come the next election)

    In the end, it's the actively involved public that really holds the most influence.

    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    Why do politicians ignore the advice/input of planners?

    I got to thinking about this issue the other day after a staff recommendation went down in flames when the developer “got political”. It was a site plan for a signature commercial building and staff had requested some improvements to the architecture and site design, reasonable things that would’ve resulted in a better project (and one doesn’t need a planning degree to come to this conclusion). There is a neighborhood plan for the area and the project will get all sorts of tax breaks/incentives. After the call came in from the Mayor’s office I just buried my head in my desk, thinking: Does the political leadership think nothing of the opinions of planning staff? Why do they hire us in the first place? Couldn’t they at least hear our side of the story? What the hell is going on here?
    All these years the people said he’s actin’ like a kid.
    He did not know he could not fly, so he did.
    - - Guy Clark, "The Cape"

  10. #10
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    hilldweller needs a vacation

    yes SGB, agreed - we had a town meeting 5 years ago to oppose the US going into Iraq (yeah, I know ) but anyway, there were some residents who got up and said, "if so and so, or if more people were here, this would be defeated" and this old hippie guy gets up in response and very quietly said:

    the work of the world is done by those who show up


    I use that quote often - if people choose not to be involved in local decision making then we as planners are left with the people that show up and we have to do our best, that's all we can do

    and to defend RJ, as another almost aging planner, I know that I can't come in here to this town waving the planner-fairy-wand to make it all right overnight, I need to respect people's histories with their community, the players in charge, the folks "who really run this place" or else I will be run out of town and then how does that help them (and yeah, I gotta live indoors and so do my 3 kids) - I know I have to take those baby steps to make little changes here and there, and to earn respect every day so that they will listen to me - I've been here 5 1/2 years and I'm almost there

    I love the local level, it's messy, chaotic, and it's human, it lives and breathes so it is imperfect and I wouldn't have it any other way - this is the hazardous material known as democracy

    I forgot where you work hilldweller but remember Town Meeting in New England where everybody gets to vote on zoning? now that's chaos!

    I sincerely hope what you are feeling passes because you are a very insightful person and the profession needs you

  11. #11
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    The various responses to this thread, including my own, are building my own case that it takes a very specific type of person to become and sustain life as a public sector planner. These people working tirelessly under these very "conditions" and do not sink into Standom. There are a lot of Stans in the world (not only in Planning) and I feel that maybe some are not cut out for public sector planning-- but some are.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    A good job is a luck of the draw: some people might work for awful employers for years and unfortunately not see too much light at the end of the tunnel, and others have great bosses (or politicans). If you don't like it, you can always leave (easier said than done).

    I see some parallels between the relationships of politicians/planners as parents/kids. Politicans in some communities have too much control and influence and intimidate the planners into doing what they want, just as some parents can be too controlling. On the otherhand, politicians in other communities can leave the planning up to the planners, just as other parents let their kids learn from their own mistakes.

    The big differences are (1) kids can't easily swap parents, no matter what reality tv says and (2) most kids are not mature enough yet to make adult decisions 24-7.

    Bottom line, unless you are bound to the land, move to a new job

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    The typical life-long bureaucrat response. Exactly the reason why I want out of this field, because the public sector is filled with people like you who won't rock the boat and belittle those that question the status quo with crap like, "go find me the perfect job".

    If you want to have an intelligent conversation about why our profession is such a failure I'll be happy to do so, but don't pander me with veiled insults
    You are so off-base in your characterization of my professional behavior…

    I’m not offended by being called a bureaucrat. (It is what it is.) Public service is a noble profession for which I’m thankful and proud. I enjoy working on the inside for positive change. In fact, rocking the boat is part of the charge--but not in public hearings. The issues are usually resolved before we reach that point. Sure, the ship doesn’t always sail on my preferred course, and that’s ok. You eat an elephant one bite at a time.

    I never intended to “pander (you) with veiled insults.” If I intended to insult you, it would not hide behind a veil; it’d be clear and right out in the open. I regret you misinterpreted my comments.

    lp, thanks for the support. zman, thanks for your last set of comments.

    I'm done here.
    Annoyingly insensitive

  14. #14
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I would agree that this dynamic is not unique to planning. Many professionals are expected to provide input on issues to inform political decision making, but unfortunately it does often happen that their final vote is based on other, perhaps more banal (or even dubious) concerns - electability, flat out corruption, etc.

    Consider the public health expert that provides reams of studies showing that teens more informed about sexual activity are less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy or catch an STD only to find in the end that federal funding will now exclusively support abstinence-only programs in our schools. The public health expert based recommendations on science and statistics, while the politician based their vote on social values and, perhaps, religious considerations. This is just one of many examples of experts providing valid and well-informed information that is ignored by politicians pursuing a different agenda. Its not the way it should be, but it is also not unheard. Its frustrating and often damaging to society, but not surprising...

    Closer to home (literally and professionally), we had an incident here in Albuquerque in which a bridge built only under the understanding that it would never be widened to four lanes was threatened to, well, be widened to four lanes by our current mayor (who, incidentally was in office when the bridge was built and even brokered the deal - hell, he held a press conference vowing never to widen the bridge - that resulted in the previous agreement). The objective was to alleviate traffic which was piling up during commutes at an intersection several blocks from the bridge. Engineers, planners, outside consultants all provided expensive and carefully researched studies showing that widening the bridge would not only to solve the traffic problem, but in fact make it worse by getting more people to the troubled intersection in a shorter time.

    So what did the City Council do? They ignored 5 traffic studies and voted to widen the bridge. Grrrr!

    Hilldweller, I am not going to tell you to just suck it up and accept it, because I don't think that is the answer. At the same time, incidents like the one described do not surprise me. But that does not mean you should be complacent. Follow your conscience - it actually does matter. I'm not certain of the answer to your particular dilemma, but knowing several unhappy people working in city planning here, your suggestion to consider a different venue for your professional work may not be a bad idea. Sometimes more can be accomplished outside of the beaurocracy (which does not necessarily mean being at odds with it either).

    Of course, I say this as someone who works at a non-profit dealing with community development and planning. I work with the City, but not for it, and as such, we can sometimes get more traction on things laying the groundwork and support from the outside and then approaching politicians with the consensus of a local constituency. The downside is that we and the partners we work with just don't have the money or jurisdiction to address a lot of important issues. Still, I value the sense of momentum and follow-through we can achieve. I think many of our plans would have been stymied, watered down or forgotten had they gone through official city channels. Our projects and initiatives are often small in scale, but the impact on peoples' lives is palpable.

    This is not to bash those who work for cities. Indeed, I feel our own city of not a particularly good example of a well-run beurocracy that values the skills of its employees. I would be curious to know how city employees feel about heir planning work in places that do seem to run efficiently and are generally well-managed. It could just be the culture you work in that is so frustrating (which is to say another municipal position might be more favorable - maybe a different city or a county level).

    But overall, I feel you pain and appreciate that you give a crap about your work. Don't give in to complacency...
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    Hilldweller

    I have been doing this a long time and have been on both sides of the aisle.

    Fact is that your resentment of the process is really and legitimate. We all get frustrated by political decisions that may seem adverse to the planning ideal.

    And all of us are human and have some breaking point...maybe this is your time.

    This is how I deal with it. For me a job well done has nothing, nothing to do with the final outcome of an issue. I think good planners can be satisfied by giving their elected officials the best information available; by explaining the impacts of any decision made; by ensuring the process was fair and open.

    The rest is politics, politics in council chambers, in the boardroom, and everywhere else in our society.

    Helps make us human.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Zoning Goddess's avatar
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    If I had a dollar for every time I opened the newspaper covering my jurisdiction and read "...was approved 5-0 by the County Commission. The County's planning staff had recommended denial because..."

    You would think citizens would have no respect for us after seeing this over and over again. But the savvy ones know all the political maneuvers that go on behind the scenes, and know it's in their best interest to work with planners, they'll get some input as part of the official recommendation. I found that, on the other hand, the consultants and applicants blew us off. But, I found that even if the commission voted against staff, they would often incorporate some of our concerns by modifying the plan/design standards, and that was at least some satisfaction.

    In 15 years of handling zoning issues and comp plan amendments, I only ever saw one instance where the staff went on the offensive to push for denial of a "project from hell". I am still surprised the county commission didn't cut us off.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    I second Luckless Pedestrian, and not just because she used the words "Warrant Committee" just as we are beginning the Town Meeting process...

    I have to say I have probably been part of the problem in the past by avoiding recommendations that would upset the political forces. I did occasionally push the envelope, but the few times I clearly went too far I got handed my head. Most of the time I was able to justify it - properly, I think - by feeling that, on the whole, I agreed with the political direction of the community even if I didn't agree with every last recommendation about siding or parking requirements.

    More recently, I have had the fortune of lots of deference from political figures. But the structure of government here does not really give any authority to staff, so its frustrating in a different way.

    Anyway, this may seem very cynical of me, but I keep reminding myself and other staff that we actually work for elected officials, Its like any boss- you have to pick your battles carefully and remember that they write the paychecks. If you don't like it, there are other places to work. They may have the same or worse problems, though!

    Fascinating topic.

  18. #18
    First, I understand where hilldweller is coming from. Working within the political system can be very frustrating. I am blessed by having my dad having worked in the system and understands what its like. He's been someone who can listen while I vent.

    FWIW, I've had hearings where everyone of my recommendations have not been followed. This helped me understand my role in the system. I am there as staff. I do the research, make sure the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed and give my opinion. I give the decision makers the info they need to make their decision and let it go. That is what the way the system is set up to work. Most businesses run this way as well. The bosses make the decisions.

    I've also worked in system long enough to realize I don't have all the answers. Further, I've seen law of unintended consequences work on decisions I have made. It's kept me humble.
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

  19. #19
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    Planners are often disregarded-- that is true-- and we are also always beholden to someone. This is frustrating and also challenging. To be effective, planners have no choice but to be persuasive and knowledgeable. It is usually not easy to be effective, but it is frequently possible. An individual planner's effectiveness has to be measured over time and not considered only in regard to one or two projects.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Vince View post
    An individual planner's effectiveness has to be measured over time and not considered only in regard to one or two projects.
    This is the most important point in this thread. However, when planners leave for a new job every 5 or so years they never get to see the fruits of their labor and are thrown into a brand new set of issues and then wonder why they're always frustrated. Stick around for 10+ years and you may start to have real, meaningful impact. I see planning as a seed that needs to be planted and nurtured very slowly.

    Municipal planners must learn to understand the "battles" versus the "war". I would argue that if, over time (and this time may vary), a municipal planner is still being marginalized by the elected officials, then that planner just needs to find a new job, or they aren't very good at being a planner.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian imaplanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by hilldweller View post
    Whether we like it or not, the role of planners in local government is usually administrative. Planners are foremost responsible for enforcing the local regulations and are only secondarily responsible for strategic plan-making. The degree to which planners are solicited for strategic guidance/leadership by elected officials differs greatly between jurisdictions. Some rely heavily on planners for policy formulation and long-term planning guidance, but these organizations are generally the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, politicians make decisions without seeking the input of planners or go against staff recommendations. This, of course, begs the question: why do politicians ignore the advice/input of planners?

    I got to thinking about this issue the other day after a staff recommendation went down in flames when the developer “got political”. It was a site plan for a signature commercial building and staff had requested some improvements to the architecture and site design, reasonable things that would’ve resulted in a better project (and one doesn’t need a planning degree to come to this conclusion). There is a neighborhood plan for the area and the project will get all sorts of tax breaks/incentives. After the call came in from the Mayor’s office I just buried my head in my desk, thinking: Does the political leadership think nothing of the opinions of planning staff? Why do they hire us in the first place? Couldn’t they at least hear our side of the story? What the hell is going on here?

    I have been in this field long enough to know that special interests get what they want, particularly developers and politically-connected engineering firms. But this time I feel blatantly disrespected and sold out, and I'm seriously thinking about a career change.
    You have to understand that your opinions and recommendations are in a sense very one-dimensional. They are based on planning. Political decisions are based on many other factors - including or sometimes ignoring planning. The people in charge are usually considering many different and competing issues in making their decision - your recommendations as a professional planner are just one of the many opinions and recommendations that the politicians are basing their decisions on.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    It seems to be that this work can turn you into a pretty risk-averse person if you let it.... most of this is due to the lingering fear of political blowback for everything you do. That's life in a fish bowl for you. You'd be DOA in the private or nonprofit worlds if you conducted yourself the way a typical public sector planner has to in order to get anything done.

  23. #23
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Also, remember, political winds change and the elected officials today may not be the elected officials tomorrow.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    The ends can justify the means.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian
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    A wise boss once told me that Planners should be "champions of the process and not champions of the outcome". I repeat that mantra as much as I can when the politicos make decisions that I feel are unwise.

    A focus on process also allows me to show leadership in how plans/projects are processed. For example, I can tweak the process to get greater review time or more citizen involvement or greater analysis of issues. I can advocate for changing the zoning ordinance or master plan.

    It's hard not to get bogged down and depressed concerning the individual plans that go through the office. Most are really good projects, but some are so awful and the political pressure so great that I want to go hide in a hole.

    Planners serving local units of government are usually in an advisory role. And unfortuantely, the elected officials get to decide if they want to follow our advice. It's the most frustrating part of the job for me, too -- especially when I view most of my work as ordinance based and not "optional". The only way around it for me is to make sure that I'm such a professional asset to the municipality that my advice is usually sought and usually heeded. It takes years of work and trust-building to get there.

    I'm okay with serving in an advisory role. The upside is that I don't have to run for office.

    I do, however, burn with anger when the ecoomic development monkeys get highest priority and they come to me with the instructions to "push it through" and the electeds back them up.

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