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Monday, June 2, 2014

Planners as Public Servants

Planners are first and foremost public servants. Therefore they ought to adhere to their respective professions and not be partisans. However, planning does not occur in a political vacuum. As such they also  need to have a deep and dynamic understanding of the political and cultural contexts in which they are operating.

In the case of urban planning, this would also entail an understanding of the varying, and often conflicting interests of political parties, civil societies, private sectors and the citizenry at large. Since the wider public includes all these entities, planners as public servants ought to be conversant with cost-benefit analysis. Skills in such an analysis, coupled with a high level of integrity, would enable them to balance and meet, with relative success, the needs and demands of the people in regards to a given plan.

The following analogy from a debate on whether the public corporation responsible for supplying electricity in Tanzania should buy power plants from an ostensibly corrupt dealer illustrate this need for a balancing act. By way of analogy, one debater argued that even if a cost-benefit analysis of a predominantly Muslim society indicated that the provision of pork would significantly reduce malnutrition at a lower cost compared to other meat, one would not go ahead with the plan given that this meat is not acceptable in that society. In this case, he aptly argued, the second best option - beef - would be more acceptable and thus less costly, both socially and economically. This shows that a cost-benefit analysis of any public plan should be sensitive enough to also necessarily include cultural/religious and related costs.

One would also expect public planners to be skillful in conflict resolution. As relatively neutral actors in planning, by virtue of being public servants who are supposed to be non-partisans and with no conflict of interests, they could  wield much influence in the decision-making process. By underscoring evidence-based cost-benefit analyses to other actors, they can prevent conflict resulting from lack of information or even knowledge and thus facilitate informed planning. When there is a stalemate between contending parties they can use their legitimacy as unbiased and trustworthy to mitigate or resolve conflict and thus build a consensus on a plan. 

To plan is indeed to choose. We can choose plans that are non-starters. But we can also choose to have effective planning through the creation and sustenance of a critical mass of serious planners.

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