Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Government, planning, and design

Whenever I talk about the value and necessity of "master" planning, most people seem to recoil.

I chalk this up to the fact that their predominate experience with planning is that it is a top-down phenomenon with limited opportunity for citizen input, constrained definitions of the scope of work, and a disconnection between planning and action.  (Another criticism I have of how we set up planning engagements is "why don't people get better with each planning iteration they participate in?"--that "we don't" is an indicator that the processes are often flawed.)

My approach is different--design-based and constructed on the precepts of participation and small d democracy.  I call it Action Planning.

But I haven't gotten many opportunities to practice it when I've done planning engagements.  A visioning exercise in the West End (not a complete planning process) and the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan are probably the two most prominent examples.
Slide, action planning as systems integration
2.  A piece in the Wall Street Journal, "Obama and the 'Amazon Experience'," discusses the prevalent practice and experience with top-down government and planning. Granted you can't expect WSJ analysis and opinion pieces to favor "big government" but the piece is valuable in its mention of development economist William Easterly, his analysis of the failure of a lot of big "Third World" development projects, and his distinction between "planning and searching."  He argues that planning by definition is top down.  Of course he's right that this is how planning is mostly done, but I myself am a "classic example" of the searching approach.

From the article:
• Searching, not planning: The development expert William Easterly makes a useful distinction between "planners" and "searchers": The former come to a task with preset ideas about what should work, and then they go about implementing the plan. Searchers, by contrast, spend their time figuring out through trial-and-error what does work. 
And that's why despite the millions and billions and trillions spent on "government" and "development" and "programs" based on plans, too often we don't get the kind of results we are looking for.  (cf.  the book Seeing Like a State and "Seeing Like a State: A Conversation with James C. Scott," Cato Institute).

3.  Similarly, an article in the Sunday Post a couple weeks ago, "The problem with public policy schools," makes the point that graduate school policy programs are a waste, that they are disconnected from politics.   I think the problem is reversed, the real problem is that politics is often disconnected from and uncommitted to analysis.  Certainly, it's controlled more by the people with the most to gain, and that means rent seeking.

I picked up an older policy analysis textbook, Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making (summary), and the basis of the argument is that the polity--we the people+government is not based on what the Europeans would call "marketization" or the market economy, but community, but our approach to politics, government, and society is mostly dominated by market economics philosophies.

So we have a difficult time discussing the issues from a common frame of reference, let alone making progress.

I think this is the problem more than the failures of implementation, because failures are mostly derived or generated from the lack of a common frame of reference.  Certainly this is the case with "Obamacare."

4.  More on the topic...  There was a piece in the Post by Thomas Ricks, "To improve the U.S. military, shrink it," discussing what should the US military be, how should it be organized to deal with whatever future conflicts that are presented.  He then said something very apt, that the military should be organized to be flexible.  From the article:
The issue, therefore, is how to have not the most powerful military today but rather the most relevant military at the point of necessity — a point that cannot be known. To have that, the United States needs a military that is not necessarily “ready for combat” at any given moment but instead is most able to adapt to the events of tomorrow.

The wrong way to prepare is to try to anticipate what the next war will be and then build a military — on land, sea and air — that fits that bill. Guesses about the future will almost certainly be wrong. In 2000, no one thought we would invade Afghanistan the following year. In 1953, Vietnam was a faraway country about which Americans knew little. In 1949, Korea was thought likely to be beyond our defense perimeter. And so on.

The best form of preparedness is to develop a military that is most able to adapt. It should be small and nimble. Its officers should be educated as well as trained because one trains for the known but educates for the unknown — that is, prepares officers to think critically as they go into chaotic, difficult and new situations.
Of course, that's not what government typically is about.  It's about standardization, which is the whole point of the argument by sociologist Max Weber in Economy and Society (cf. Robert Michels on oligarchy in organizations, in Political Parties).

5.  These pieces get to my point that planning needs to be more design-based, because traditional planning approaches can be pretty static, while design allows for prototyping, testing, small projects (like the ideas of Tactical Urbanism) and dynamism and change.

I see planning, especially master planning, as supposed to be focused on "searching" when the reality is that it isn't.

6.  McKinsey has just released an article, "Government by design: Four principles for a better public sector," coining a nice phrase "Government by Design" that I wish I would have come up with earlier.   Although a better phraseology would be "Government by the Design Method" and "Planning by the Design Method."

The article lists four principles of "government by design":
1. Better evidence for decision making
-- Collecting credible performance data
-- Benchmarking consistently against peers
-- Using data to design and improve interventions

2. Greater engagement and empowerment of citizens
-- Using innovative channels to make services more citizen-centric
-- Soliciting citizen input to improve public services
-- Tapping citizens to help deliver better services at a lower cost

3. Investments in expertise and skill building
-- Using adult-learning practices to build core capabilities
-- Developing specialized capabilities in critical sectors
-- Sharpening strategic and risk-management skills

4. Closer collaboration with the private and social sectors
-- Improving government’s procurement of products and services
-- Unleashing government’s power as a provider of public goods
-- Refining government’s role as an economic shaper and integrator
Interestingly, "empowering citizens" should be first, and it isn't.

Conclusion.  Clearly, we aren't at the point where there is a definitive piece laying out the concept of "Government by the Design Method" but we are getting there.

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