Adventures with a Manic Managerialist

Check box

I always expected my interaction with the local council (Armidale Dumaresq in Northern New South Wales, Australia) would turn to frustration and anger, even before the journey began. Years ago, I supervised a PhD project that traversed the slopes of ‘expertocratic’ planning at the local government level. More specifically, this show was all about how the ‘expert’ mindset of local council professional planners was a real impediment to meaningful community engagement and genuine partnerships between community and council as the foundation for a sustainable future. The ‘I am an expert’, machine-management culture of Planners had become a disease endemic to the Planning profession. Our project was all about how to escape the debilitation of top-down management with which nearly all local councils have become thoroughly contaminated. 

Some councils are better than others. Some Planners know that working with community should be fundamentally different to working on people like some kind of clay on a potter’s wheel. You don’t have to apply the heat of law and adversarial process when you have genuine engagement. You don’t have to spend all your time in court when you work with, rather than against your constituency. Plus, and here is the biggie, when you have meaningful colaboration, you get a synergy of intellect to apply to problems and issues. More minds working together in harmony can often apply a more detailed understanding of the issues at hand and work towards finding solutions that are as robust as possible across the greatest possible diversity of interests and positions. In other words, better collaboration leads to more resilient communities. 

The place to start is to try and persuade those in charge that they do not, in fact, know everything. That the world does not work like a machine, and that the Planners’ job is not one of a mechanic working on the machinery of their local community to achieve some desired outcome. Planners are not ‘cog tinkerers’, mainly because, in nearly every possible planning scenario, at least some of the cogs and the mechanisms that drive any situation at hand are unknown or at best poorly understood. You can’t wrench on a machine if you don’t know how that machine works. But that mechanic analogy is a very tight fit to the way so many Planners operate. 

Once upon a time I was involved in a project to open up local government planning to creative community collaboration. The context for the work was an explicit recognition, on the part of those who funded our work, that the old engagement models of command and control were inappropriate for at least environmental and sustainable community work. So we set out to work with lots of communities on community visioning and the like with a view to articulating processes for meaningful engagement that might then underpin some re-writing of Planning guidelines and underlying rules. The whole show really started to shine via some extraordinarily positive community enthusiasm and endorsement. So much so that it soon became apparent that local communities, when meaningfully engaged, really do have a terrific capacity for creative futures planning. I use the word ‘terrific’ intentionally here as terror became increasingly obvious by way of reaction from the upper hierarchies of the Planning profession as our work progressed. it became ever more evident that effective community engaged planning would mean ever greater devolvement of planning activity and responsibility to the communities involved. If the processes of engagement, or the methods of collaboration are effectively managed, what you end up with is a highly creative, synergy driven super intelligence of talent through which to identify, understand, manage and organise local issues. Which implies the beginning of the end of the old machine manager mentality of conventional, old-school Planners and their bureaucracy. The first victim of creative community engaged planning is top down management. That is quickly replaced with what could be termed ‘discursive’ deliberative democratic process and associated governance. The feedback loops of information and communication weave right around all levels of the Planning show via a breathtaking complexity of animated engagement. Top to bottom engagement becomes meaningless. No one is in charge anymore in the old ‘Top-down’ command and control sense. No wonder, then, that the State Government level Planning department sponsoring our collaborative community planning work soon pulled the plug and disowned our work in short order. I have never seen a project divested of official support so quickly as that. The local authorities even stooped to the level of sending out a letter to the legions of community members who had participated in our work to suggest that we had ‘gone off the rails’ and that the future of that particular project was under ‘new management’. That work never went anywhere. The communities have never heard a word since. 

Our experiences and insights definitely do not spell the end of the expert. Rather, the role of the expert is transformed. The discipline of Planning and the discipline of management is just as important, but these disciplines are differently organised and differently implemented under genuinely collaborative planning process. Indeed, there is a key need for a new discipline to be added to the Planning portfolio: the discipline of engaged community facilitation. Facilitating community engagement is most emphatically not something ‘anyone’ can do. There are profound skills involved, including a thorough grounding in sociology, psychology and philosophy. This skill set needs its own university degree and accreditation programmes. I am always stunned by the abject ineptitude of Planners appointed to the facilitation of community engagement tasks. Usually, we get a suited expert equipped with a clipboard and an enthusiastic aid manning a flip board of butchers paper seeking to list audience needs and wants to be followed by some kind of communal prioritisation of the ensuing lists. This is an abjectly dysfunctional way of going about a task such as this. For starters, you will never, ever, get any kind of meaningful community representation in gatherings such as this. Next, those with the loudest voices (and or those with the most to gain/loose) will shout their contributions to such lists over the top of any and all other potential interests in the room. But, worst of all, this listing process completely, and artfully, dodges all possibilities for the creative synthesis across the points represented in such lists. The possibilities for merging and synergising across different individual’s priorities and concerns are lost. The possibilities for really getting to know and understand why it is that two different people or groups can have such opposed viewpoints is a difference to be explored, not sorted via arbitrary voting protocols. Why do two people hold opposite viewpoints? What are the fundamentals of these differences? We have found, time and time again, that seemingly opposite viewpoints often become simply two ways of expressing the same set of preferences once those differences are systematically explored. ‘Systematic’ is the keyword. There is a process and skill set involved in managing a conversation such as that. The expert with his flip board assistant may not have the ideal skill seat to catalyse that kind of infinitely revealing dialogue. 

To foreshorten a book that could be written around these themes and my experiences in this regard (which I am, indeed, currently writing), I would simply say at this point that the old command and control, machine manager mentality of Planning is alive and well in the Planning community and, particularly, within the Council with which I have recently had ‘dealings’. 

My particular dealing was over a simple rural residential development application. Nothing could be more straight forward, I had thought. If ever there was a rubber stamp to be applied this particular exercise would be the most likely candidate. But we all came unstuck when the Planner-in-Charge discovered that the historical road that would access the new house site also services the residence of one of our rural neighbours. Though the road is entirely on our land, our neighbours had managed  (50 years ago) to derive a ‘residential benefit’ exclusive to themselves. Which implies that we could not use that road to access our new house, even though the road is on our land. Though there was no objection from those neighbours of any kind to us using the road ourselves, our Planner-in-Charge decided that there could be contestation over access (even when there was no contestation of any kind) so denied our application unless we chose to build a new access road. My proposal to build a new road exactly parallel to the existing road, with a metre or so separating them, was not interpreted as the sarcastic response I had intended. 

The point to be made here is that, once again, when faced with even a slightly complex issue, all possibilities to determine a solution via engaged collaborative process were dismissed by this Planner with a dismal incapacity to even notice shades of grey between the ‘pass’ – ‘fail’ check boxes of his planning routine. Indeed, the only possibility for engaged discussion across all parties involved was, apparently, one of full legal adjudication. A process of discussion across already amicably disposed parties (us and our friendly neighbours) was not considered to be a meaningful foundation for  resolution. Rather, our Planner-in-Charge could conceive of no other possibility than pushing parties inclined to simple negotiation into the adversarial setting of the legal system. What were once a group of neighbours, if not friends, would be put to each other’s throats and into the cess pit of outrageously expensive legal arbitration. Why should two parties be forced to arbitrate over an issue that had not been an issue before this Planner became involved. At no stage did this Planner or his Planning cohort suggest or even, I suspect, conceive of the merest prospect that simple discussion across all involved parties could resolve what really is a very trivial problem. 

My simple development application case study reveals an endemic dysfunctionality in the Planning profession. The context of my group’s larger community planning work suggests the problem is a culture of managerialism at work within local government Planning. Managerialism is a disease that inflicts managers with an incapacity to understand real world systems as being complex, and as such, as being something more difficult to manage than the mechanisms of a clock. The invocation of the command and control perspective of management over people-involved planning situations is a tragedy given the modern political and bureaucratic rhetoric that would raise the necessity for ‘community participation’ in policy and governance to the highest possible priority. Indeed, the necessity to work effectively with communities of all kinds is actually embedded in the core planning legislation that governs Planning and policy making at local, state and federal levels. The simple problem here is one of mismatching professional capabilities with the job at hand. A manager with a command and control mindset should be appointed to tasks no more complex than the organisation of departmental coffee breaks or the organisation of the executive staff Car Park. They should never be unleashed on the public, particularly within the context of a job description that actually demands sensitive and effective collaborative engagement as the setting through which to transact client interaction. 

But most perversely of all, this council with which I have had such a frustrating engagement is one that had won a planning award for the machine-management system of check box planning that their chief planner had instituted late last century. I always delight in suggesting that the ultimate outcome of effective machine management is management by machine. Thus rendering those very machine managers redundant. 

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