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Boston Revisited - Planning at the National Level Still Needed:
Precedents, Principles and Prospects

Co-Authored by John E. Hirten, AICP, Bruce McDowell, AICP, Irving Hand, AICP, Ernest Erber, AICP, David Johnson, AICP



  The 1998 APA NATIONAL PLANNING CONFERENCE, held in Boston, included a session titled "Whither National Planning." This session explored the need for an organized, rational, and effective process, to guide and direct the use of federal funds and programs affecting the country's physical, social, and economic future. How ironic it is that the Federal Government requires everyone to whom it gives financial aid to plan for future growth and development of this great country, but does not do so itself. The federal government, as much as anyone else, needs to look at the big picture and take a leadership role!

  Cities have plans; corporations have plans; some states have plans. But the federal government, which collects and spends billions of dollars for a long menu of major programs and projects spanning the whole nation, gives little attention to the relationship among them or to any overall plans or goals. Political leaders agonize about the solvency of Social Security, balancing the budget, deficit reduction, new infrastructure, and the need for education and welfare reform, but they have no plan to relate these respective needs and how they are addressed to one another. Certainly each of these issues is important, and all have serious implications for the nation, but they are dealt with out of context. There is much rhetoric about needing to save money and to promote programs that are compassionate, but little reference is made to what we are capable of doing, or who should do it, or what the impact of one effort on the other might be.

  The National Planning session in Boston covered such issues as:

  • Is there a need for a national planning process or for a National Strategic Plan?
  • What are the consequences of not having such a process or plan?
  • What form should a national plan take, and who should do it
  • the White House, Congress, OMB, or a specially created National Planning Board or Commission?
  • How do we define our nation's natural resources?
  • For what purposes and on what basis should federal money be allocated?
  • How do we define "National Purpose"?
  • Should the costs of implementing federal mandates be borne by federal taxes or by state and local taxes?

  To put these issues into perspective, Professor David A. Johnson, University, of Tennessee School of Planning, pointed out that national planning, far from being antithetical to the American tradition, has been at the heart of political, economic, social, and material resource debates from the beginning of the nation, throughout the 19th and 20tn centuries. Only recently has the national discussion of critical issues of development and conservation been placed in the limbo into which it has fallen.

  Of course, in times of crisis, that comforting thought has necessarily been put aside to meet severe exigencies of war and depression. Mobilization of resources occurs, focus of public purpose has been achieved, and Americans have met the challenge. What we have not learned is how to stay the course in less difficult times so that national purposes and great issues are given their due.

  Dr. Johnson pointed out, that we should not have to have a crisis to do what any prudent family or corporation does almost automatically: they look past the immediate present to what could, and should occur down the road either as insurance against rainy days or as skillful investment in the future not only for ourselves, but also for our children and grandchildren. In fact, a close reading of American history suggests that enormous benefits have been derived at every stage from thoughtful public preparation for the future. Indeed, we would not be in the enviable global position we enjoy today had it not been for past generations' investments in education, infrastructure, conservation, information systems research, and public health.

  Professor Johnson points out that the Founding Fathers were greatly interested in planning and development. Indeed the Constitution itself, which is our nation's institutional plan, and the continuing effort to ensure a countervailing presidency, equal to the legislature, is evidence of the concept of national planning implicit in the early stages of our national development. It has continued under various administrations in different forms.

  First, the nation was effectively mobilized during World War I. Then the depression spurred the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the National Resources Planning Board. Again the nation mobilized its resources for World War II, and production goals and quotas were set. After the war, the Office of Management and Budget took over the residual of national public works planning. The Eisenhower Presidency brought cutbacks to the more formal national planning efforts, but interestingly gave birth to the biggest national plan and public works project in history, the Interstate Highway Program. Eisenhower appointed a Commission on National Goals which reported in 1960. Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society program and created Regional Economic Development Commissions, and started a plethora of inner city programs, but all of these efforts had limited planning coherence at best. Then in the second Nixon Administration, a National Land Use Policy was considered, along with proposals for Federal Revenue sharing and reorganization of the federal cabinet departments to make them more goal-oriented. Now, under the Clinton dministration, there is much experimentation with reinvention. However, thoughts of national goals and national planning are limited mostly to political rhetoric about individual problems.

  On the other hand, Dr. Bruce McDowell, President of Intergovernmental Management Associates, and long-time researcher at the recently abolished U.S. Advisor)' Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, described what he called the good news. He said that this is the most pro-planning period in the national government since 1980. This is not to imply that national planning has suddenly come to the federal government, but there are more pieces of the puzzle waiting to be put together than in almost two decades. After more than ten years of little planning action at the federal level, the adoption of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA) is finally beginning to take effect, following four years of pilot projects and skepticism by federal departments and agencies. Under GPRA, all the federal departments and agencies had to submit long-range Strategic Plans to Congress last September 1997, and short-range Annual Performance Plans in the Spring of 1998 to justify their Fiscal Year 1999 appropriations requests.

  As hopeful signs he cited the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), which over six years has established a new, more ambitious standard for federally required planning at the state and local levels. This is a federal, state, regional partnership which has been extended for another six years in the new legislation - Transportation Equity for the 21st Century (TEA-21 ). ISTEA has been so successful, in the eyes of the groups that care about planning, that it is being touted as a model for other federal-aid planning processes water development -economic development - community development, and so on. The hallmarks of this process are:

  • tightly linked federal-state-regional/local partnerships
  • broad and deep stakeholder involvement
  • well-funded planning that considers a wide range of programmatic, environmental, and social consequences, and
  • fiscally constrained plans that require prioritizing needs and goals, so that proposals don't overreach the available resources.

  This kind of intergovernmental planning is particularly important in the GPRA context, because so many of the customer-oriented goals of federal departments and agencies can be reached only through intergovernmental program delivery systems. Thus, GPRA makes federal departments and agencies dependent on their intergovernmental partners for reaching the goals that count with Congress. There is a common purpose here that shouldn't be missed. ISTEA shows how it can work to everyone's advantage.

  Finally, so much of what the federal government does is geography-related that the ease of obtaining and using geographic information is a key to the success of national planning and intergovernmental service delivery. In 1994, Executive Order 12906 defined the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) that could pull this off, and directed all the appropriate federal departments and agencies to assist in its implementation.

  The point is that GPRA planning is real planning, said Dr. McDowell. It is directly tied to program implementation, and one of the major features of GPRA planning is the dual requirement for federal agencies to perform an "external scan" and to involve stakeholders and customers in the whole planning process. McDowell pointed out that" GPRA planning is in its infancy in many federal departments and agencies, so don't expect miracles overnight, but stick with it a few years. GPRA can give us the tools to make a difference in national planning."

  Professor Irving Hand (Penn State - Harrisburg) points out that APA and AIP before it, had shown deep concern when the 1956 National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Legislation was enacted, regarding its impact on livable cities. The question was raised at a 1956 Connecticut General Life Insurance Co workshop in Hartford, Connecticut, entitled "The New Highways: Challenge to the Metropolitan Region - How Can We Recreate the Efficiency and Livability of our Cities Through the National Highway Program?" At that meeting, the Federal Highway Administrator and the Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (now DOT and HUD respectively) met for the first time. The occasion was organized to call attention to and facilitate an awareness of the potential impacts of a significant national policy and program on housing and related developments at the state and regional level. This is what the national planning issue is all about - namely; what are the impacts of an), unilateral national policy or program on other critical resources or programs at the state, regional and local level, whether funded by federal, state or local taxes?


  Professor Hand described the key elements of what a National Planning Process might look like when he referenced several documents which asked a central question "do we wish to design our nation's future or simply be resigned to it''? To engage the former we need the means and institutional processes required to identify, at an early point, the vital questions likely to confront our nation as the future unfolds so that accommodation to change can be a deliberate, conscious and natural process instead of a violent one. That capacity includes an Office of Balanced National Growth and Development in the Office of the President to implement and administer specific national policies developed and enacted by Congress relating to: future population settlement and distribution; economic growth; environmental protection; income distribution; energy and fuels; transportation; health care; food and fiber production; employment; housing; recreation and cultural opportunities; communication: land use; welfare; technology assessment and transfer; monetary and fiscal policy; a more detailed and continuous analysis of population and demographic trends."

  Professor Hand noted the HUD 1997 State of the Cities report tells us: "to prepare America for the 21st Century, we must build stronger communities." It goes on to list all the good economic news of the nation and the resultant good fiscal health of states and cities. But that report also points out some serious problems:

  1. A significant disparity in job creation is growing between the cities and suburbs.
  2. Our country's poor have grown more socially and economically isolated and more physically concentrated.
  3. The long-term migration of the middle class from cities to suburbs continues.
  4. No clear policy exists on massive immigration and its impact on the border states and welfare.

  Professor Hand referred to the Clinton Administration's policy statements: to have jobs in cities for those who come off welfare, to bring middle class families back to America's cities, and to marginalize the impact of today's poverty concentration in cities. These reflect the basic elements of planning. But without some concrete proposals for resolving the "who does what" between states, regions and the federal government, and without an understanding of structure, organizational responsibility and their inter-actions, it falls short of any recognized planning effort. Hand concluded: "update the Hubert Humphrey proposal for a Balanced National Growth and Development Policy because it makes the case for national planning in terms of: what it is, where it is and how to do it?"

  Finally, Ernest Erber (an eminent retired Planner, New Dealer and fighter for civil rights) contended, that before we can address the "Whither" of National Planning we must first know the present status of National Planning, and this in turn means that we must know what we include under the term "National Planning." Only then we can address its future.

  Erber said that planning, at the Federal level, which meets the test of being goal-oriented and being comparatively comprehensive in its scope, can validly be described as "National Planning," even if it is limited to one or more segments or departments of the Federal government, e.g. transportation, health, housing, labor, etc.

  But such segmented national planning cannot determine the overall direction of societal development. What's needed is central planning that can be comprehensive and inclusive with respect to the many reciprocal aspects of growth and development.

  Progress in moving the Federal Government toward "National Planning" can be measured, therefore, in both the expansion of planning throughout the federal agencies, and also in its movement toward the creation of institutions for integrated central planning, capable of influencing the direction in which our whole society develops. Both aspects of "National Planning" are necessary if planning is to give direction to the nation and to society as a whole.

  The American people have given the Federal Government responsibility and authority - in the words of the U.S. Constitution - "to promote the general welfare." The private sector is given rights and protection by the same Constitution, but is given no responsibility for society or authority to direct it. These are given solely to the Government of the United States - not to major corporations, non-profit organizations or even to political parties per se. Clearly then, within Constitutional limits, the primary responsibility and authority for promoting the "general welfare" rests with the Federal Government. Consequently it seems logical, that in order to carry out this responsibility, the Federal Government should use its authority to institute and conduct "National Planning".

  Erber contended that the current emphasis on the private market as the solution to many of the nation's economic and social problems is overstated, and a cause for concern. He points out that today we live in a market-dominated and market-driven society. Since the market has repeatedly revealed itself to be self-destructive, its current dominance will be short-lived or at least not permanent. He quoted author George Soros: "Markets reduce everything to commodities. We can have a market economy, but we cannot have a market society."

  Erber paraphases the session's title as "Whither America without Goals or Direction?" Though the market has, in recent years, contributed significantly to economic growth, resulting in vast increases of capital and in steadily expanding employment, it has contributed little to the solution of the countless serious problems facing society. Those issues include: air pollution, poverty and the widening gap between "haves" and "have-nots', crime and the growing illegal drug trade, the lags and controversies of elementary and secondary education, formless metropolitan sprawl unrelated to transportation needs, and many other economic and social questions. Without real and meaningful public goals and objectives, backed by acceptable public policies and programs specifically focused on addressing these issues through a "Plan and Planning Process," we cannot expect any rational or organized approach to these problems, but a confusing piecemeal effort instead.

  Erber described what the planning discipline can offer when applied at the National Level:

  "Planning as a discipline (canon) and its professional practice have, in the course of nearly a century, developed and refined methodologies for decision-making to shape future physical and social development, adapting to the trend lines of multi-faceted, ever-changing physical, social and natural phenomena.

  "These methodologies reflect the accumulation of scientific knowledge in researching and projecting trends and in the skilled artistry in designing future-oriented solutions at all levels of government and varying stages of societal and technological formation.

  "The planning discipline and practice can inform the nation's elected decision-makers of possible societal futures and their underlying rationales, facilitating public debate and choice on the basis of factual data, projections and analysis."

  In his book "Toward a Planned Societv," Otis Graham hinted at a definition of national planning when he said: "Planning assumes that modern industrial society requires public intervention to achieve national goals; assumes that such intervention must touch all fundamental social developments; must be goal-oriented, and effectively coordinated at the center; must be anticipatory rather than characterized by ad hoc solutions and timing dictated by crisis."

  Is this a definition upon which we can build and begin to define what should be a national planning effort, and if so, what form might it take? Are we too far beyond that possibility? Have the politics and "feel good" rhetoric at the national level become so entwined in personalities and special interests that we are not likely to see any effort toward national strategic planning in the near future? Or is this period of change and transition in federal, state, and local relationships, along with private sector changes in technology and communication, a true opportunity for the federal government to step back from expedient mandates and questionable interventions and, instead, try to establish some framework and process for setting agreed-upon national goals, objectives, policies and integrated federal, state and local programs?

  We are optimistic. National strategic planning is not an anathema. It could be well received by both liberal and conservative politicians and large segments of our society, if clearly explained for what it is, namely: NATIONAL STRATEGIC PLANNING defined as an organized, rational and efficient process addressing the country's natural and human resources to:

  • Formulate national goals and objectives for the future,
  • Provide guidance and direction for the use of federal funds and programs, and
  • Preserve and enhance the nation's physical, social and economic well-being.

  This is the challenge facing the members of the American Planning Association, the one national organization with the background, the talent and the resources to call for understanding and action from our national leaders. Do we have the courage to accept that challenge and through the energy and capability that APA can provide, reinvigorate the dialogue and help make National Strategic Planning happen?

last updated: 07.25.2003.1305