Planning, Politics, and the Pandemic


People in medical face masks

Robert A. Beauregard blogs on the the political nature of planning and the Pandemic.

Why were so few protective masks available? Why were no plans in place to manage the quarantine, distribute ventilators, and aid people forced out of work? Given recent virus outbreaks in other countries, why wasn’t the pharmaceutical industry encouraged to prepare a vaccine?

These questions were voiced in the spring of 2020 in response to the spread of the covid-19 virus to the United States. They were directed at the federal government. Why, many people asked, did the government and its leaders not consider that the virus would travel here and that an epidemic would become a pandemic? People expected the government to protect them from such events. They expected the government to have planned.

In fact, however, the government had planned. Masks, ventilators, and other equipment had been stockpiled. Experts in federal health agencies and state and local departments of health had been assigned to track infectious diseases and develop protocols for halting their spread and treating those who became ill. Knowledge of ‘best practices’ and plans for a response were available for elected officials to consult. Moreover, the emergence of covid-19 in China had been well-publicized and was public knowledge. The President, the governors of the fifty states, and the mayors of the country’s cities had resources to craft an effective response. The problem was not a lack of planning. For many people, it was a failure of elected officials to heed the plans, listen to the experts, and act accordingly.

From the perspective of planning theory, this indictment is not so much wrong as incomplete. Planners might want to believe it, for it leaves them blameless. But, if one thinks like a planning theorist, the indictment avoids important issues regarding how we think about planning and about the responsibilities of those who practice it.

Planning theory is an academic project that reflects on the nature and meaning of planning as it is practiced by governments and done so around issues of urban and regional development, encompassing such activities as transportation and environmental planning. Central to planning theory is the relationship of planning to politics and thus to power. The covid-19 indictment leads us to politics, but in a way that makes planning theorists uncomfortable.

What the indictment essentially does is separate planning from implementation, confining planning solely to giving advice and, consequently, enabling planners to evade responsibility for the intended consequences of their plans or for the failure of their plans to be implemented. In effect, the indictment accepts the semantic limits of planning that confine it to what occurs before action is taken. Planning is what we do in order then to act purposively and with a degree of certainty that what is done will achieve what was intended. This semantic limit has haunted practicing planners and planning theorists alike. So confined, planners are relieved of responsibility for the adoption of their plans and for whether they are carried forth in a timely and appropriate manner. But, if planners deserve their professional mantle and the ethical considerations associated with it, then they have to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. In effect, planning should not end once plans have been made. It has to cross beyond its semantic boundaries.

From this perspective, casting elected officials as solely responsible for an inadequate response to the covid-19 pandemic is problematic. It leaves unaddressed what planners should have been doing to assure that their plans were implemented. The indictment defines planning too narrowly.

What baffles planning theorists is what planners should and can do to assure that the consequences they intend actually occur. What becomes inescapably obvious is that planning is not a technical task carried out to solve widely-acknowledged problems, but an essentially political act. Planning is part of the very politics that is often cast as its nemesis. This implies, unavoidably implies, that planners have to abandon the safe haven of dispassionate expertise and technical problem-solving and realize their political nature. But what could this possibly mean? And how might it affect the legitimacy of planners to speak as public-regarding, non-partisan experts?

For planners, the choices are daunting: either remain relatively apolitical and hope to be convincing through the quality of the evidence and the logic of the advice and, as experience shows, having little influence, or, act strategically and become embroiled in the blunt use of power, the trading of favors, rhetorical deception, and verbal intimidation and thus no longer able to claim political independence. A third possibility is for planners to cast their fate with social movements, a response known as insurgent planning. None are satisfactory and the conundrum remains.

From the perspective of planning theory, whatever failures occurred in response to the 2020 pandemic are not solely ones of political leadership. The issue is not simply one of requiring elected officials to implement the plans available to them. It is also involves thinking through the relationship between planning and the action that is meant to follow; in short, embracing the political nature of planning.

Beauregard AI Planning Border

Advanced Introduction to Planning Theory

Robert A. Beauregard, Columbia University, US

Find out more here.

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