URBS 4/511 Urban Policy & Strategic Analysis

Getting & Using Power

In Planning in the Face of Power, John Forester defines planning as 'selective organization of attention to real possibilities of action.' In this understanding, all planning is political: "As they formulate problems, analysts pre-empt decision-makers; they define and select feedback as well as process it." What follows is a summary of some of the main points Forester makes in defense of his position, and his recommendations for how to make use of his insights.

Recognize Problems, Seize Opportunities

  1. Neglected dimensions of practice: "(Analysts) resolve problems less by calculation ("solving" them) and more by creating them anew, reformulating them so action and strategy are possible, sensible, and agreeable to the case at hand." This requires dealing with
    • factual analysis
    • coalition building ("Criticism is requisite to objectivity; detachment is not.")
    • networking
    • set of questions
  2. Implications for practice
    • ability to speak and write effectively
    • selectively channel information and attention
    • no longer simply to be "efficient," but to work instead toward the correction of needless distortion.

To Be Rational, Be Political

  1. Types of planners
    • Technician: power lies in technical information (power based on technical problems)
    • Incrementalist: information is source of power because it responds to organizational needs (power based on organizational needs)
    • Liberal-advocate: information is power because it responds to a need created by a pluralist political system (power based on political inequality)
    • Structuralist: information is power because it legitimates existing structure of power (and perpetuates public inattention) (power based on system legitimization)
    • Progressive: information is power because enables participation of citizens (and avoids legitimization issues of structuralists) (power based on citizen action)
  2. Distortion of information: Distortion is inherent in communication, and sets the bounds (limits) to the rationality of action. Distortion comes from two sources: the social nature of communication (where distortion may be structural or incidental) and the contingent nature of communication (where distortion may be inevitable or unnecessary). This results in a 2 X 2 table:





cognitive limits of communication

division of labor


interpersonal manipulation

structural legitimization

  1. Managing Misinformation: Social interaction depends on
    • comprehension (distorted by problem framing)
    • sincerity or trust (distorted by false assurance)
    • legitimacy (distorted by lack of consent) and
    • knowledge (distorted by misrepresentation)
  2. The Politics of Muddling Through: Bounding Rationality

Given limits on rationality, individuals construct simplified models of the real situation when confronted with a choice. As solutions are easier to find, standards are raised; as they are harder to find, standards fall. Depending on the conditions at hand, a strategy may be practical or ridiculous.

    • Comprehensive (Unbounded): rational actor working in a closed system on a well-defined problem with perfect information and unlimited time. Strategy: Optimize/solve (use algorithm, technique).
    • Cognitive limits on rationality: fallible actor working in a system open to its environment on an ambiguous problem with imperfect information and limited time. Strategy: Satisfice/hedge.
    • Social limits on rationality: several actors of varying skills working together in separate settings on a problem with various interpretations with information of varying quality and differential time commitments. Strategy: Network/search & satisfice.
    • Pluralist limits on rationality: several actors in competing interest groups with varied access to settings and multiple definitions of the problem using contested information where time is power. Strategy: Bargain/increment
    • Structurally distorted rationality: actors of unequal power with differential access based on power and ideologically defined problem using misinformation where time favors the "haves." Strategy: Anticipate/organize

Anticipate Organizational Power and Conflict

"Where severe inequalities exist, treating the strong and the weak alike ensures only that the strong remain strong and weak remain weak."

Planners have various strategies at their disposal to mediate land use conflicts:

  • Planner as Regulator
  • Mediate and Negotiate
  • Planner as Resource
  • Shuttle Diplomacy
  • Active and Interested Mediation
  • Split the Job-You mediate, I'll negotiate

Focus on What Counts: Communicative Action

  1. Practice of Critical Listening
    • be attentive
    • ask questions
    • assess fundamental ambiguities
    • sense of "publicity"
    • respect for other
  2. Making Sense Together
    • reading context and desire: facing ambiguity
    • world shaping
    • conversation as communicative action
    • conversation as learning
    • practically situated action
    • reproducing identity and social relations
    • political rationality

Use Theory to Anticipate and Respond

  1. Experience of Communication Distortion








Can I trust you?

Is this right?

Is this true?


What does this mean?

Can we trust them?

Is this justified?

Is this true?

Social Structure

Do you think they understand what that means?

That's their line

Who are they to say?

What they never tell us about is….

  1. Correcting Communication Distortion:







What does that mean?

Does s/he mean that?

I don't accept that

I'd check to see if this is really true


Clean up the language so people can understand it

Check with X to see if we can trust them on this.

What does the neighborhood say about this?

Check the data to see if these figures are really correct

Social Structure

All this really means is…

What are they getting out of this?

Who does this serve other than the bureaucracy?

We have to show what can be done here

  1. Anticipatory Practice
    • envision the situation
    • prepare or manage good arguments
    • negotiate strategically


These ideas are drawn from

Forester, J. 1989. Planning in the Face of Power. Berkeley: U of California Press.


© 2009 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 20 May 2009