Or, how philosophy, psychology and Alcoholics Anonymous can help us start to change the target-driven culture in planning.
I have given myself the job of changing the way planning measures itself by introducing something more meaningful. It is a big task – no one has cracked it to date. On paper, it arguably has two main elements; how to convince/compel individual councils to change their behaviour en masse; and how to convince those in charge of the ‘system’ to change or let go? Over the coming months I am going to start a few conversations here about how we tackle this task. First though, I want to kick things off by sharing this fairly light-hearted, slightly abstract piece that I wrote after a chance conversation with my niece who is studying philosophy and psychology.
The conversation made me look at effecting change as a therapist might view treating the patient on their couch. Part of helping someone change difficult or damaging behaviour requires an understanding of the root causes, the personality type, and the role that external influences have, before helping them ‘rewire’. So, here’s how a quick insight into the human condition led me on to looking at what we might learn from Alcoholics anonymous in trying to frame an approach to changing the way planning measures performance.
The ‘Ironic Gesture’
Back to the conversation with my niece. She told me about something called the ‘Ironic Gesture’. It allows us to engage in certain activities while simultaneously ridiculing or disavowing them. For example, it allows us to say we care about the plight of children in developing countries while eating chocolate made from cocoa beans harvested by child slaves. Alternatively, it allows us to sit in Starbucks sipping latte’s while belly-aching about the evils of big corporations. Imagine how ridiculous us planners would appear if on the one hand we all agreed that the present planning performance framework doesn’t work and makes us do strange things in the pursuit of targets, while on the other hand slavishly setting ourselves up to delivering against it? Wouldn’t that be ironic? (and funny), were it not true. (Comedians Mitchell & Webb do a great sketch touching on this theme – I’ve included a link at the end of this article).
How we avoid acting on what we know to be true
Of course, deep down, we know that the chocolate we’re eating or shirt we are wearing has probably been unethically produced. But we don’t want to know that we know, because then we’d be compelled to change our purchasing behaviour quite fundamentally. So we ‘protect’ ourselves by avoiding anything that confronts us with the truth directly. It’s a bit like when we turn the TV over when a charity appeal ad comes on, or only read certain newspapers/books/articles that support views we already hold.
If we think about these concepts and how they might apply to planning, what we need is something that confronts us in a new way about what we already know to be true; in such a way that compels us to act. This might be the thing that moves us from a place of merely knowing, for example, that the current performance framework hides the effects of ‘sharp’ practices (like freely arranging for the withdrawal of applications taking ‘too long’) to a place where we really know – presenting us with hard data and a £ sign next to the evidence of wasted work and duplicated effort such behaviour causes.
Addiction and what we can learn from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Planning operates within a system that over time has gradually got us hooked. We were originally encouraged to start ‘using’ by the promise of Planning Delivery Grant (the equivalent of the free first fix). Now, as a sector, we display many of the symptoms of addiction; we have built up a tolerance to a behaviour that hurts us, we can’t cut down or control how we ‘act out’ (government gave us an open door 2 years ago that we all ignored), all of our activities are focused on it, and we jeopardise other important relationships (with customers for example) to pursue it.
The most important element of an addiction rehabilitation programme is that the participant first has to admit they have a problem and seek help. The journey to this realisation usually involves being ‘found out’ or being publicly confronted with compelling evidence of the effects of the destructive/addictive behaviour. It leaves no alternative but to seek help. This is where I think the approach of the AA recovery programme is really interesting; its power lies in helping participants to publicly admit they have a problem, but privately to get help within a supportive, non-judgemental environment.
Building on the compelling evidence theme here, when I think about this in the planning context, I think we need to find ways that councils can ‘expose’ the extent of their performance issues in a positive ‘we-recognise-we-need-to-change’ sort of way. It’s then about making sure councils don’t feel islolated, and have the support in place to address the issues they have identified.
The system needs to change – a healthier, less destructive way to live.
There is also a ‘structural’ element to this. In many cases the thing preventing change is the system itself. For example, young people will continue to suffer self-esteem issues linked to body image until the big fashion houses and advertisers change what they present as ‘normal’. In these systems, everything we know to be wrong remains because the system remains. We have spent decades as if paralyzed and seemingly just willing to accept a performance framework that doesn’t work. A bit like being in an abusive relationship, we have become convinced that what we have is normal, that there isn’t anything better and we may even have got to the point where maybe we don’t even believe we deserve anything better.
This all helps the system remain as it is, and the system remains as it is because it has a vested interest (usually profit) in doing so. We need to find a way that encourages the system to change into something different without losing its vested interest. This aspect, when I think about change to the planning performance system, is in some ways the easiest to affect. If the government are ‘the system’ and their vested interests (for arguments sake) are economic growth and a positive planning system, then they need to be convinced that the players in the system (councils) can be left alone to look after and deliver on that vested interest. It’s a lot easier than convincing the fashion houses to drop size zero models. Let’s not kid ourselves too much here though. The system is of course much wider than the just the government. The software houses for example that do very well out the present set up and providing 300-odd different approaches to doing the same thing, also need to be convinced as we make our journey.
So where does all this leave us?
Whether you think I am on to something or talking poppycock doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we start changing this system we find ourselves trapped in and start talking about how collectively we can go about this. On the other hand you may disagree with me – both my thoughts and about the system generally; does the system even need changing? I hope you do disagree because if you think I am right then I’ll have to pursue this thing.
Next time I write I will be developing these thoughts and ideas in a more straight forward way, peppered with some insights from our most recent planning service benchmark. Until then it’s over to you.
That Mitchell & Webb link – (warning: it contains ‘language’).