Dust, Bravery and the Usual Suspects: Q&A with Planning Commissioner’s Journal

Ah, July… I’d like to say that I haven’t blogged lately because I have been working so darn hard, but there’s too many pictures of me at a U2 concert floating around Facebook to make that very convincing.  As I try to get back to the grind, here’s a Q&A that I did recently with Planning Commissioner’s Journal as a follow-up to an article I wrote on Comprehensive Planning for the current issue.  I think it gives a decent and hopefully interesting take on some of my favorite issues, including meaningful public participation.  If you’re not a Planning Commissioner’s Journal subscriber, you can download a special free copy of the last (spring) edition through the publisher, Wayne Senville’s LinkedIn profile.

Q & A to post on PlannersWeb

about Della Rucker Summer 2011 column, Why Comprehensive Plans Gather Dust

Wayne: In your column in the Summer issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal you focus on a topic that I’d guess most planning commissioners have wrestled with — how to make sure their city or town’s comprehensive plan actually gets used and is meaningful to the community. You describe the kinds of plans that you say typically end up sitting on a shelf gathering dust — ranging from “the Encyclopedia” plan, which you describe as “covering everything whether it matters or not,” to “the Laundry List” plan, which, as you put it, “presents such a disorganized stream of recommendations that no one knows where to start.”

You then outline some of the elements that you feel are vital if a plan is to be useful: using data to understand the most important issue the community will be facing; having meaningful public participation; setting priorities; and focusing on what’s necessary to get the plan implemented. It’s this part of your article that I’d like to explore further with you. I also want to get your reaction to some of the many comments we received on our Linkedin group page about the first draft of your column.

One of the points you make, as I noted, is the need to have “meaningful public participation.” In your column you say that we have “to do more than let the public spout” and that those participating in the planning process need to have “real-world challenges to grapple with, so that the feedback you get has meaning.” Can you flesh that out a bit?

Sure, Wayne.  One of the biggest sleeper challenges I think we are facing today is that our traditional public debate model of public involvement isn’t working well and has probably outlived its usefulness.  I think there’s at least three reasons for that.  First, the traditional stand-up-and-make a speech approach was designed when public participation was limited to a much more narrow portion of the total population than we know we need to involve today.  Nineteenth – century politics (back to the ancient Greeks, actually) was limited to reasonably educated white men.  So even when there were differences of opinion on local issues, everyone in the room was coming from, in very broad terms, the same perspective.  Today, we have a lot more voices, a wider range of voices, and not everyone can express themselves adequately within that oratory model.  So we get silence from a large part of the population, and often less than enobling wisdom from the small number who stand up to speak.

The second reason is that the issues we have to grapple with have become much, much more complicated because of the interdependencies and interrelationships that we live within in a modern community. You can’t deal with too much complexity, address too many nuances and acknowledge that there may not be a perfect solution when you are at a podium for three minutes and the situation has been cast as a for-or-against debate.

The third issue is that the ways in which we gain understanding and grapple with decisions are changing, and I would argue, need to change ASAP.  K-12 educational methods (how teachers are being taught to teach) have largely discarded the lecture as a useful means of building knowledge.   Instead, teachers are shifting to methods that engage the students directly in dealing with the information, making sense out of it for themselves – which means that they develop better and more meaningful solutions to the problems they are presented.  Frankly, that should have happened a long time ago.  Cognitive psychiatrists have known for generations that only a very, very small part of the population learns best by listening to someone talk.  And the more we become used to living in a world rich with information of all types, the more we need to be able to do more than parrot back what we hear.

What does educational methodology have to do with public participation?  I’d argue, everything.  What we desperately need is for our citizens to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk, simplistic cause-effect assumptions.  We need to draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get, we need to get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and we need to engage them – get their hands deeply into – the search for solutions, solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

That might sound Pollyannaish, but I’m not saying that some kind of “everyone is special” happy-talk.  I am drawing that conclusion from what we know about how people learn and from the corporate world, where major companies are putting massive amounts of effort into broadening their employee base to include the widest range of people possible and then creating team environments to work on solving complex challenges.  If they’re finding it necessary to use diverse team problem-solving to deal with stuff like getting shampoo into a bottle, how much more do we desperately need real, deep involvement to deal with the massive complexities that make up a community?

One thing that I always feel like I have to say as a follow-up to that idea is that it’s not simply a matter of throwing a bunch of people in a room with a problem and hoping that they’ll figure something out.  That’d be foolish.  Instead, we who work with communities have to borrow a page from good teachers and good business team managers: we have to carefully create a structure that moves people through the information they need efficiently, channels their efforts into the right direction, makes it safe for everyone to participate (including your sweet grandmother who never speaks in public), and leads them to the creation of something that has value to the community and makes the time and effort they spent worthwhile.  The tools to do this are out there… we just have to learn them and use them.

We also all know that planners and planning commissioners often struggle with getting more than “the usual suspects” to participate. Are there strategies you’ve found that can help better engage more members of the community?

I can think of two different broad categories of “not the usual suspects,” and both of them will need a different strategy.

First, the public participation methods we traditionally use tend to exclude the less educated, immigrants, those who do not speak our language well.  Again, the need to include them isn’t because it’s the “right” thing to do – it’s because these people have a particular knowledge of the community that we will never be able to access if they don’t share that with us.  If we remain blind to those issues, we’ll miss the opportunities to address them, which is likely to have a direct impact on our community’s tax base growth and the demand for community services. I’ve done public involvement sessions co-led with a trusted community translator or liason to draw out participation from emigrant communities, and if there is any expectation of persons who are illiterate or disabled , I make sure that it’s known in the information that goes out before the event that people will be available to help those who have trouble reading or writing.  I’ll often also station a person at a table to write down any comments or ideas that anyone has.  That helps not only people who cannot write or elderly people who have trouble seeing, but it also helps people who can write but would rather just proclaim their ideas.  That way we get their thoughts down, they feel like they’ve said their piece, but we haven’t let them dominate the entire community’s discussion.

A second type of resident that is typically underrepresented is younger adults. There’s at least two barriers to their involvement, and both of them derive from our continuing to use these outdated public involvement models.  First, you’re dealing with a population that has a lot of demands on their time — jobs, kids activities, social events, etc.  If I am in that boat (and it happens that I am), asking them to sit in an auditorium and listen to someone drone about what may or may not be a key issue to them…that’s a luxury many cannot afford, and it’s a very unclear return on investment for giving up a very valuable commodity — their time.  I am probably more aware of the impacts that local government decisions have on the rest of life than 90% of people in my age group, so you would think I would be at my community’s council and planning meetings all the time.  But given the choice to spend two hours of my evening sitting in a meeting where I might or might not be able to give meaningful participation, while at the same time I have kids who need to get to practice, a house that needs cleaning, flower beds that need weeding and a report to write that I should have done last week…..it’s extremely hard for me to make that equasion work in favor of going to the meeting.  The second barrier is the changes I alluded to before in how people think and interact with information.  For people — let’s say generally 45 and younger — the combination of inefficiency, lack of ability to actively engage in the process and, lets face it, the often confrontational and overly simplistic rhetoric you hear in the typical public meeting is completely off-putting.  I think this generation is particularly aware of the ineffectiveness of this approach because they haven’t come up that way – they have come of age and entered the workforce in collaborative problem-solving teams — and have more clear memories of how often they fell asleep during college lectures.  Needless to say, if I have anything better to do with my time than go to that public hearing and listen to the crabby people ramble, I’ll take it.

Engaging this population takes an entirely different approach.  First, we need to make it more convenient to accomodate the busy.  This is where online methods become so important — not just because they are cool and whiz-bang, but because they do not require me to be in a certain place at 7 Pm — I can participate at midnight after the baby has gone back to sleep, or at 6 AM while eating breakfast, or wherever.  That’s increasingly an expectation of the majority of Americans — just look at the number of people relying on the internet for work and using social media on their smart phones.  If I can expect to be able to buy a pair of shoes online from my phone at 2 AM , certainly I am going to expect that I can interact with my local government at any time of day or night when I can.   Second, that interaction has to be more meaningful than just “I like it” or “I hate it.”  This population expects to be able to be part of the conversation, and they increasingly expect a rich, interesting and well – managed online experience. Again, all of this is not nearly as hard as it might sound — it all depends on finding and using the right existing tools.


On our Linkedin group page, there was at least some disagreement with your criticism of Encyclopedia style plans. For example, one planner said, “I am glad my comp plan had an encyclopedia element to it because when people say to me ‘why are we doing this particular ordinance change? I can respond to say ‘this is the information we had at the time that led us to this conclusion.’” This planner also said that you don’t need to broadly circulate the whole plan, including the Encyclopedia component. Instead, she said their planning staff “did a newspaper that was dubbed ‘the Reader’s Digest version’ of the plan and this was very helpful to communicate what’s in the plan.”

How would you respond to this? Does it make sense to have both a highly detailed and a condensed version of the comp plan? Or does that create more confusion?

Completely.  I have done a lot of plans that had a recommendation document and a companion information document.   You definitely need to understand where you have been and where you are today, and if it makes sense to have two volumes, or an Executive Summary and an exhaustive version, great.  Just make sure the covers show that clearly and that you indicate that there’s another version available.

The point I made in the article, however, was that I see a lot of plans that are 95% Encyclopedia, and maybe 5% recommendations if you’re lucky.  You end up knowing a ton about the community’s past and present, which is of course valuable, but you have very little guidance about the direction and priorities for the future.  I spent part of my early career as a public historian, so I am a complete junkie for community histories, but knowing the past is just a small piece of what you need to shape the future.

In a lot of cases, I think that the plan that is entirely Encyclopedia (lots of facts, not much recommendations), is the result of a situation where no one involved had the power or the willpower to stick the neck out and assert a vision of the future and how to get there.  So you write a lot of pages on the stuff that’s not controversial.  And as I indicated, as a consultant, I’ve been guilty of that myself.

But that’s a big piece, I think, of how planning gets a bad name.  If the encyclopedia part of the plan informs and guides a good, specific, prioritized set of recommendations for the future, fantastic.  If it doesn’t, you might as well just donate it to the local history department.


We also received some comments about the political nature of developing a comp plan. One commenter, for example, wrote: “Great article, but where do politics fall in this?” I know it’s something you didn’t really have space to delve into in your column — and, in fact, we’ve devoted three past articles in the Planning Commissioners Journal just to the topic of “the politics” of planning. But I’d still be interested in hearing your thoughts on the role of local elected officials in developing the comp plan. Should they just stay out of the process till a recommended plan is forwarded to them by the planning commission, or is it important to involve them earlier on? And related to this, how can a planning commission effectively identify priorities — as you recommend — unless they know what’s likely to receive funding from local elected officials?

Elected officials really should be involved during the planning process.  I have seen a lot of situations where the elected said “oh, we don’t want to be involved, we don’t want to influence the process,” but then they had heartburn over some of the recommendations and didn’t want to approve it.  Not only is that ineffective, but it’s incredibly bad press.  On the other hand, though, the electeds cannot appear to be running the process or overly influencing it, or that will set the plan up to be ruled arbitrary and capricious.

Like I said about all the rest of the citizens, elected officials have specific knowledge that is critical to a useful plan.  They tend to know details of government operation, budgeting and funding issues, and other items without which, the plan would lack an important grounding in reality.  So they need to be involved.  But they need to be prevented, sometimes actively prevented, from dominating the conversation, or their insider’s perspective may blind the plan to issues and opportunities that the insider can’t see.  Managing that process requires very, very strong leadership from the planners.  That can be done, even if the elected person is the planner’s boss, but it again requires a process that decentralizes the process, treats all the participants as equals, and avoids the soapbox model.  Most electeds can run circles around other citizens when it comes to making speeches if you give them that chance.  But if we make sure that the elected officials have ample opportunity to hear and work with other citizens, chances are they will become profound supporters of the plan because they both understand the objectives and understand that the impetus is coming from real citizens grappling honestly with real issues.

The same balancing act applies to your planning commissioner question – if elected officials are not involved, you may be whistling in the wind when it comes to figuring out what can be funded or supported.  Much better to have that perspective in the mix while you are still working it out than to have to throw out an important idea after doing all the work on it.  However, don’t let the funding question completely dominate the decision.  As people, and especially as planning commission members and elected officials, we tend to have very short-term and narrow perspectives: if I don’t immediately know how to fund it, it must not be fundable.  What we often fail to realize is that there are many more potential funding sources for any initiative than simply the three or four we are used to using.  If an idea is important to the community, you can find a way to fund it.  It might take some work, and there may be tradeoffs, but on the fundamental level, it can be done.  So don’t toss out a potential recommendation on the basis of “how will we pay for it?”  Make figuring out how to pay for it part of the implementation.


Finally, there’s the important point that several on our Linkedin group raised about plan implementation. And I know it’s something you touched on in your column. From my own experience, I’ve seen that there’s often an enormous amount of energy put into developing a plan and getting it wrapped up and over to the governing body for adoption. How do you keep the momentum going once the plan is adopted, and what sort of steps can be taken to make sure the plan’s recommendations are followed through on? I know those are big questions that you could probably write two or three articles on. But can you highlight some ideas for us?

Sure – that sounds like a good topic for my next article for Planning Commissioner’s Journal. To highlight here: we need measurable performance benchmarks, a clear understanding of who is responsible for what and when, a structure or mechanism for regularly checking those benchmarks and progress on the intiatives, and lots of public information and transparency about what goes well and what doesn’t go the way the plan intended.  And all that requires a level of local government bravery, for lack of a better word, because that’s what’s going to be necessary to build real support from the citizens to make the hard decisions down the road.

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