Politics Of Planning Research Paper

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Planning—here defined as current efforts to affect future outcomes—is a ubiquitous human activity in both public and private life. Individuals plan when they choose their career paths, build families, and save for their retirements. More formally, both corporate managers and government officials regularly develop detailed plans to guide the future activity of their organizations. No society or time-period has a monopoly on planning. Indeed, examples of planning can be identified in virtually every culture and epoch. Some of the best-known episodes in the ancient literature (e.g., the biblical account of Joseph’s grain storage) and the most celebrated public works projects in history (e.g., the building of the pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the eighteenth century reconstruction of Paris) were, fundamentally, exercises in planning.

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A major aim of planning is to cope with uncertainty. By delineating precise goals, planners seek to stabilize and shape subsequent conditions. Although (nearly) everyone plans, some do so as a career. In the USA today, planning is a recognized profession with barriers to entry, distinct graduate training programs, and particular methods, modes of discourse and internal status rewards. Many planners work for government agencies or as government contractors.

1. Planning Defined

The term ‘planning’ has no fixed technical meaning in the political science or public administration literatures (Meyerson and Banfield 1955). It refers to activities ranging from socialism to program budgeting to purposive efforts to manage land use, municipal zoning, and regional development. The denials of certain planning theorists notwithstanding, planning is inescapably political because it reflects and reinforces social values (Benveniste 1989). Yet planning and politics may also be in tension with one another (Banfield 1961). At its most heroic, planning seeks to pre-commit major aspects of a society in a particular long-term direction designated by central elites. Yet knowledge is always partial and social conditions inevitably change. Heavy reliance on central planning thus risks reducing opportunities for social learning and partisan mutual adjustment, processes that are essential to a well-functioning polity. To the extent that planning accommodates such vital error-correction and conflict-resolution processes, however, it becomes hard to distinguish from ordinary forms of policymaking (Wildavsky 1979).

At least three (overlapping) dimensions of government planning may be distinguished. First is whether the objective of the plan is to shape the future operations of the overall economy (economic planning) or, alternatively, primarily to affect the government’s own internal administrative operations (administrative planning). A second important dimension concerns the scope of the plan—whether the intellectual demands, and aspirations, of the planning effort are large (synoptic or comprehensive planning) or relatively modest (strategic planning). Finally, one can distinguish between plans that rely on coercion to effect change and those that seek to achieve their goals through voluntary compliance (indicative planning).

1.1 Economic Planning

Throughout the twentieth century, economic planning has been an important response to the perceived moral failings and practical defects of capitalism in both Europe and North America. Prior to the 1980s, the governments of the former USSR and its Eastern European satellites attempted economic planning on a grand scale, seeking directly to control all means of production (as well as consumption patterns) thorough centralized decision-making (Berliner 1957). For many, the tragic experience of central economic planning stands as a political symbol of the inherent limitations of socialism. More concretely, this experience is a legacy that the peoples of Russia and Eastern Europe are struggling to overcome.

Under Stalin and his successors, central Soviet economic planning was organized hierarchically. The top state planning agency, Gosplan, established the target rate of national economic growth and the allocation of production across industrial sectors and geographic regions. This overall national plan was then broken down by various ministries into directives assigned to local economic units. Finally, managers and engineers at the factory or farm level were required to implement particular instructions. Until the 1960s, the USSR reported strong economic growth. By the 1970s, however, it was apparent that productivity had slowed drastically and that resources were being grossly misallocated. While military facilities could generally obtain whatever they needed, the domestic sector was being starved. Living standards deteriorated. In 1987, President Mikhail Gorbachev announced a policy of Perestroika—restructuring— designed to resuscitate the moribund economy (Heilbroner 1993). But the system collapsed.

Critics argue that the Soviet planned economy failed for two main reasons. The first is inadequate information. Very early on the free market economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrich Hayek insisted that a socialist system was doomed to fail because central economic planners, lacking the price signals of a market system, would be unable to obtain the information required to promote economic efficiency (Von Mises 1935, Hayek 1948). In fact, economic planners in the Communist world—as Polish economist Oskar Lange anticipated in an important 1938 analysis of socialism—were often able to gain much of the information they needed by monitoring changes in plant inventory levels (Lange and Taylor 1938). The more important reason for the failure of socialist central planning, it seems, was that actors typically had little or no economic incentive to respond to their directives (Heilbroner 1993).

Although Soviet-style comprehensive economic planning was never accepted, the idea of economic planning has long enjoyed intellectual support in the West, even in the USA. The terrible human costs of the Great Depression weakened elite and popular faith in laissez faire capitalism and ultimately led to new forms of government intervention in the economy. Most Western governments assumed responsibility for planning for full employment. In France, ‘indicative’ planners sought to achieve a voluntary exchange of information among business and labor leaders, thereby allowing the French government to use its fiscal and regulatory tools to shape private investment decisions (Lindblom 1977). In the USA, a President’s Council of Economic Advisers was established in 1946 to promote stability and growth. During the 1950s and 1960s, Keynesian fiscal planners actively sought to manipulate the level of consumer demand and macroeconomic output. The large tax cut of 1964 was explicitly justified in Keynesian terms. The era of activist Keynesian economic planning came to an end in the mid 1970s, however, with the simultaneous appearance of high inflation and slow growth (stagflation), which contradicted the assumptions of Keynesian models. While use of automatic stabilizers remained a fixture of fiscal policymaking, US politicians in particular lost confidence in the ability of economic planners to ‘finetune’ macroeconomic policy to the business cycle.

1.2 Administrative Planning

In the West, it is in the realm of public administration that one can identify genuine attempts at synoptic planning. Comprehensive government planning has long been central to normative theories of public administration. The influential French administrator Henri Fayol (1841–1925) argued that a ‘good plan’ requires clearly defined, written, comprehensive objectives together with the resources necessary to carry out these tasks. In the USA, broadly similar concepts found expression in the scientific and executive management movements of the Progressive and New Deal eras. The normative commitments and pragmatic understandings that emerged from these movements (e.g., ‘one-best way’ thinking; the emphasis on hierarchy and span of control; the separation of politics from administration) have had a significant impact on USA administrative practice and doctrine. In a classic statement in 1937, Luther Gulick, a member of the New York Bureau of Municipal Research who served on Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Brownlow Committee, defined the executive function by the acronym POSDCORB (planning, organizing, staffing, directing, coordination, reporting, and budgeting). Effective planning was thus held to be the crucial first step to the achievement of rationality and technical efficiency in government administration. In the USA, administrative planning enjoyed a revival in the 1960s (Schick 1975). Hundreds of federal and local statutes mandated the formulation of plans for allocating intergovernmental grants, designing cities, and other purposes. The centerpiece of the new administrative planning was PPBS—Planning, Programming, Budgeting Systems—which essentially demanded that federal agencies engage in synoptic planning to promote the public interest. Administrators were to (a) articulate precise program goals, (b) comprehensively list alternative ways of achieving these goals, and (c) analyze the costs and benefits of each significant option. PPBS was introduced in the Pentagon in 1961 by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. By 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered PPBS to be extended to nearly all federal, civilian departments. The promise of PPBS was considerable: Planning and policy analysis would be used to increase administrative effectiveness. Defective programs would be found wanting and, it was hoped, replaced with superior alternatives. The actual results of PPBS were disappointing to say the least, however. The reporting and monitoring requirements of the planning effort created a paperwork burden that quickly overwhelmed government officials. PPBS performed especially badly where, as was the case in many domestic agencies, bureaucratic outputs were soft and hard-to-measure. Most importantly, PPBS failed to accommodate the political and organizational incentives of budget actors. The Nixon Administration formally abolished PPBS in 1971 (Knott and Miller 1987, Kettl 1992). The failure of PPBS lends support to Aaron Wildavsky’s argument that a fragmented and seemingly uncoordinated budget process generally does a better job of allocating public resources than does a system in which central planners make a synoptic, integrated evaluation of budget alternatives (Wildavsky 1964). Despite the manifest failures of PPBS, similar, comprehensive-planning exercises were adopted subsequently by US governments (e.g., zero-base budgeting and management-by-objectives).

Given the severe limits of synoptic planning, why have so many governments persisted with these sweeping reform efforts? Probable reasons include: there may be a political benefit to appearing ‘rational’; planning exercises may enable elected officials to give respectability to things they wish to do for other reasons; and focusing on planning procedures is often easier than making substantive decisions (Knott and Miller 1987). The enduring interest in synoptic government planning may actually rest less on science and rationality than on a secular faith in the perfectibility of man (Wildavsky 1973). Indeed, in an important account of paradigmatic failed attempts at ‘state simplification’ (e.g., the Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia), political anthropologist James Scott argues that the hegemonic planning mentality is supremely unscientific in the sense of being uncritical, unskeptical, and contemptuous of the importance of practical, local knowledge and informal processes in the face of unpredictability (Scott 1998).

2. Limits And Possibilities Of Planning

Although synoptism has failed everywhere it has been tried, more limited forms of government planning clearly have succeeded. The Controlled Materials Plan of the USA in World War Two, the American Social Security program, the massive interstate highway system—each of these initiatives was bureaucratically ‘planned.’ Long-term goals were articulated, the stated objectives were (more or less) achieved, and the political outcomes were, if hardly uncontroversial, at least defensible. Planning works best when it is highly bounded, is focused on a specific problem, and is economical of analytical talent (Lindblom 1965, 1977, see also Devons 1950). Thus, like the formal hierarchies through which it tends to be implemented, planning has its organizational place (Alexander 1992). The challenge is to keep it there—and to render the practice and results of planning compatible with processes of social interaction.


  1. Alexander E R 1992 A transaction cost theory of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association 58: 190–200
  2. Banfield E 1961 Political Influence. Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  3. Benveniste G 1989 Mastering the Politics of Planning. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco
  4. Berliner J 1957 Factory and Manager in the USSR. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  5. Devons E 1950 Planning in Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  6. Gulick L, Urwick L 1937 Papers on the Science of Administration. Columbia University Press, New York
  7. Hayek F A 1948 Socialist economic calculation: The present state of the debate. In: Hayek F A (ed.) Individualism and Economic Order. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  8. Heilbroner R 1993 Socialism. In: Henderson D R (ed.) The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics. Warner, New York
  9. Kettl D F 1992 Deficit Politics: Public Budgeting in Its Institutional and Historical Context. Macmillan Publishing, New York
  10. Knott J H, Miller G J 1987 Reforming Bureaucracy: The Politics of Institutional Choice. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  11. Lange O, Taylor F 1938 On the Economic Theory of Socialism. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN
  12. Lindblom C E 1965 Intelligence of Democracy. Free Press, New York
  13. Lindblom C E 1977 Politics and Markets. Basic Books, New York
  14. Meyerson M, Banfield E C 1955 Politics, Planning and the Public Interest. The Free Press, Glencoe, IL
  15. Schick A 1975 The trauma of politics: Public administration in the sixties. In: Mosher F (ed.) American Public Administration: Past, Present, Future, University of Alabama Press, AL
  16. Scott J 1998 Seeing Like A State. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  17. Von Mises L 1935 Economic calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. In: Hayek F A (ed.) Collectivist Economic Planning, G. Routledge and Sons, London
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  20. Wildavsky A B 1979 Between planning and politics: Intellect vs. interaction as analysis. In: Wildavsky A B (ed.) Speaking Truth to Power. Little, Brown, Boston, Chap. 5, pp. 114–40


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