Professional Power and Planning

First published in 2019 with the Planning Institute of Australia

As a professional ethicist, very few things fascinate me as much as the topic of power. The ability to control the circumstances of oneself and others is a fundamental factor in how society operates, both professionally and far more broadly. Many of the centres of such power are obvious – political parties, CEOs, boards and private wealth – but what interests me even more than them are the hidden sources of power. And few are as well hidden as urban planners.

For a profession that quite literally shapes the future use of our state’s land for decades into the future, with profound implications for the lives of everyone residing there, it is remarkable how few people even know that urban planning exists. Fewer still understand what the profession involves, much less the process by which such immensely consequential decisions are made.

On paper, planning appears to be a profoundly powerful field; wielding strategic control over the future of an entire nation, with virtually no awareness, and therefore scrutiny by the public? Such a profession sounds more like a conspiracy theory than reality. But as members of the Planning Institute are all-too-aware, this hardly aligns with the reality of the job.

Between Local Councillors, the State Government Planning Scheme, the economic interests of developers, the demands of home owners, the intercession of VCAT, and the virtually unlimited discretion of the Planning Minister, planners operate in an exceptionally contested environment. These numerous parties command both formal and informal power over planning professionals, exerting significant influence over the decisions they make – all without regard for the question of best-practice, evidence and validity.

These sort of power dynamics may seem abstract to many; high-level strategic concepts that are the role of management to account for, rather than professionals who are there to do a job. But to take such a stance is to ignore a major factors in whether you can do that job well. When a municipal planner labours to achieve a design that is ideal for the needs, interests and future growth of their community, only to see that work altered substantially through the influence of other parties with little or no reference to best-practice or evidence of any kind, then that planner has (despite their best efforts) failed in their task.

They may take solace in the fact that such interference was beyond their control, that this is simply how the system operates, and that any input from their professional perspective is better than none. But how much better would it be if that planner was instead able to employ their own power to assert and defend their vastly superior approach?

And despite the numerous constrictions planners labour under, the same dynamic can cut the other direction as well; to be excluded from the future design of their community is bad enough for many citizens – the only thing worse is to be ‘consulted’, in such a way that it is clear to them that their input is purely a formality to the experts in charge. Thus, their needs go unrepresented and misunderstood, errors are made, resentment ferments, and all parties reap the negative consequences.

Understanding the nature of power in a professional environment, how it operates and how it moves, are essential skills for any professional that wishes to avoid both of these scenarios – scenarios fundamentally caused by imbalances of power. Such skills are all the more crucial for their scarcity; such power dynamics affect every organisation, government and business at every level, and yet are rarely considered or managed for. By acknowledging this prime factor in how decisions are made (and whether those decisions are valid or not), urban planners can ensure that their work to forge an excellent future for the residents of our state is of the highest quality.

The techniques for doing so are many and complex, but by far the most consistently valuable is a very simple maxim: criticism is valuable. Whether valid or not, the only way we can improve our performance is to seek and value criticism. Where it is valid, we may refine and improve our decisions, avoiding errors we would otherwise have embraced. And where those criticisms are not valid, they provide us with valuable insight into the motivations of those who seek influence over our decisions. And to understand the motivations of another, is to gain a degree of power over them.

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