Beyond Public Participation: A Networking Approach to Planning (1982)

Chris Bradshaw, Community Relations Officer,
Planning Department, Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton,
Presented to the Annual Conference of the
Canadian Institute of Planners
Hull, Québec, June 1982 (re-edited, March 2005)


In its 13 years of existence, the Planning Department of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton has aggressively used public participation.  Close to one-third of the budget of each study has been devoted to it.  In addition, a community relations staff of between two and four people has been employed the past ten years to implement the programs.

However, the experience, especially recently, has not been satisfying or successful.  This paper relates the process that has been followed during the past year as we have analyzed these problems through to the current implementation of an “informal” or networking approach that is replacing the traditional, formal approach.  The traditional paradigm is referred to as public participation, while the proposed replacement for it is called community consultation.

I will be relating this story from my own perspective as the department’s community relations officer, and as a person with a liberal arts political science degree and several years of community organizing experience prior to eight years of work for the department.  The experience of each of you will be different; there is a good chance that your efforts with the public may not have become as formal as ours.  However, an appreciation of the informal-formal dichotomy will be just as useful to you in your utilization of the public’s resources.

This paper is itself the result of a networking process.  As such, it is to be treated as a discussion document with the feedback being used for future versions [this paper was followed up by several shorter papers and presentation by the author over the next two years].  Further, although the paper refers to departmental experiences, the content is solely the author’s personal responsibility.  Thanks is extended to several members of the PROCESS network [a group of people attending a workshop on public participation at the 1980 Global Conference on the Future in Toronto, and who stayed in touch via the author’s efforts in the form of a cut-and-paste newsletter] and to the author’s departmental associates.


Although second-guessing about public participation has been a favourite preoccupation in our department for many years, the usual result was nothing more than, “what’s the use,” or “the problems go with the territory.”  However, over the past three years, during the time the department was conducting two major studies, the Conservation Lands and the River Corridors studies, three serious symptoms resulted which could not be ignored.

A. Political Reversals

Both studies were meant to be opportunities to strengthen policies that, due to limitations of time and resources, could not be properly developed earlier in the official plan.  However, both studies aroused severe public enmity that brought about reversals by our Planning Committee and Council at levels that were unprecedented.  The result?  Ironically, a significant weakening of the environmental protections.

Although it is obvious that the public mood and values have shifted since 1974, this does not explain why this shift was not noticed by staff over the two years of public participation that occurred for each study.  The politicians obviously were angered by the need for them to be in the middle.  Why did staff fail to read the change?  And where were the members of the public who supported the strengthening of the policies?

The reversals were also accompanied by a questioning of the competence of the department.  There was both the lack of specific local knowledge related to physical features and the inability to understand and address social impacts.

B. Resource Limitation

Both dissatisfactions and the general economic restraints began to cause a questioning of funding for advertising, brochures, printing, and exhibitions, including staff resources which are heavily used in public participation.

The public was questioning not only these ‘extras,’ but the demands made on their own personal resources.  This shows up in the trend towards reduced levels of participation and more frequent requests by citizen members of advisory committees for help with their personal expenses.

These costs are still occurring.  The official plan amendment that resulted from the first of the two studies was recently the subject of a five-and-a-half week learning before the Ontario Municipal Board resulting from outstanding objections.  Staff spent many weeks preparing for the hearing, former staff were brought in to testify, and 200-plus citizens spent from one to five days waiting in line to be sworn in to make their case.

C. Lack of Joy

The final symptom has been the most visible: a lack of either satisfaction or enjoyment.  What should have been a collaborative, shared building process, was instead confrontational.  The process for the two studies simply wore out its participants because of misunderstandings and exhausting schedules.  All give-and-take involves tension.  However, because of the scale of the exercise, it occurred suddenly and overwhelmingly.  Planners postured themselves in favour, citizens against, and the political people tried to avoid becoming casualties in a process that required them to be referees.  Any shows of understanding the opposition was seen as a weakness.


Against the backdrop of these three symptoms, the list of problems over the years can be discussed.  It was at first hard to tell if each could be solved by itself through the refinement of techniques, or whether the public participation itself would need overhauling.

A. Lack of Support

Edmund Burke, in his excellent 1979 book (1) spends a good deal of time isolating this problem.  He is even so bold as to suggest that, if support for a change in policy cannot be identified early, the study should be abandoned until a sufficient rationale exists.

This is wise advice, not only for those agencies which find much of their work collecting dust on a shelf, but for those aggressive agencies that get into trouble trying to muster such support late in a study, after it is obvious the support is lacking.  Burke calls these supporters the ‘study constituency.”  The constituency is not just the department’s friends or those who have a stake in the change.  Rather, it consists of those whose constituents will be affected, positively or negatively.

Another reason for the lack of participation of supporters is the perceived thoroughness of the staff’s proposals which make the laymen feel they can add nothing to.  As a result, they give their time to other priorities.

B. The Stridency of the Opposition

Equally frustrating is the nature of the public opposition, something akin to the relationship that exists between a large company and its labour union.  Each side postures itself by overstating its case, refusing to compromise or reason, and labelling every position or gesture as favouring one side or the other.  This kind of participation is the result of a process that is difficult for participants in every respect: 1) long, tiring public events in the face of other competing commitments, 2) the difficulty of understanding what is being proposed and why, 3) the extensive work involved in preparing formal comments in writing or for presentation, 4) the disorientation of mingling with people one doesn’t understand in strange settings, and 5) the frustration of trying to change the minds of experts who appear to have their minds made up and of politicians who accept their advice ‘blindly.’  The lack of independent community support is also noticed by these same participants.

C. Resistance to Early Involvement

The opposition mentioned above is not a constant phenomenon on studies; it develops late in the study.  In fact, in early stages, there is very little interest in public participation, when principles and background data is being presented.  Why isn’t the public attracted early, when so many options are available, rather than later when final decisions are imminent?

There are two reasons.  First, a good many planning agencies simply don’t make the effort early, viewing the citizens as rather useless until the proposals are arrived at.  But we and other agencies have actually tried, and failed.

Secondly, planners are unable to provide people with the information they need in order to assess how they will be affected.  Without it they cannot make the commitment to participate, or if they do participate, can’t provide feedback the planners can expect the citizens will stand by later.  This requires details that the planner either can’t provide (because not enough is known at that stage) or won’t provide because of the fear that such hypothetical thinking-aloud will get him and his bosses into trouble.

D. Lack of Rationale and the Dilemma of Evaluation

Very few sponsors or public participation programs are motivated by anything more than a feeling of obligation: to the public or to a senior agency or authority.  This means that there is really no objective that can be measured, and as a result, senior agencies unfortunately get involved in mandating a programme, detail by detail.  Therefore, there can be no serious evaluation beyond the use of a questionnaire asking participants, “did the programme achieve what you expected?”

Even where such an enlightened rationale exists, – as will be proposed later – evaluation usually occurs in a formal manner, after a programme is completed, to be used only for subsequent programmes rather than serving to fine-tune the current process.  Considering the variety of circumstances the variety of such subsequent programmes, such feedback will be of limited use.


We looked very hard at these problems and symptoms.  We considered various ‘fixes’: hiring a professional writer to improve the ‘readability’ of our reports and brochures, using workshops rather than public meetings for a more personal touch, and even using surveys instead of public participation itself.  The more we thought about them, the more we gained insights into the entire exercise.  The first insight was gained from our use of advisory committees on the Conservation Lands Study, a technique now in wide use with many agencies.

A. Advisory Committees

The use of groups of citizens which meet regularly with staff to react to staff’s thinking seems to be a natural antidote to the above problems: 1) interests can be represented in numbers proportional to the size of the constituents they represent and can benefit from the less formal atmosphere, 2) early involvement is quite feasible, 3) hypothetical thinking-aloud (about probably details of certain courses of action) can be used because the context can be related and oral communication is utilized, and 4) the technical information can be absorbed more easily, both because of the chance to use the question-and-answer format, and because the participants are chosen to be above average in their analytical skills and level of interest.

However, these citizens do constitute a formal group.  Either they don’t represent viable communities – in which they will become passive and will find the technical information harder to relate to – or they do and the soon come to view the committee as a tool to control both the process and the outcome..  In other words, they ignore the limitations inherent in the advisory role and begin to assume the character of a decision-making group.  The latter concept results in demands for: 1) majority rule (rather than ‘competing’ interests’ views being kept separate), 2) more staff to do more research or create and run models, 3) members wanting to control their membership make-up, meeting times, and other resources, and 4) the demand to vary the work schedule, including perhaps an attempt to stop the study.

Much of the problem is the way the committees are structured and used: 1) advisory roles are not natural, except where its membership is professional and paid, 2) members are rushed and not given enough time to either understand the concepts and proposals or to consult with those they represent before commenting, 3) staff publicize any support the committee gives them, which forces the members to be more careful about their comments, and 4) members are often chosen to satisfy political friendships or to reflect unrealistic ideas about what interests make up the community.  Also, some members ‘get co-opted’, feeling that they have received special recognition from people they usually feel inferior to.  They try to impress staff and some even consider entering the planning profession.

The end result is usually one of two: the committee get into a struggle with staff and is usually disbanded, or it endorses staff proposals and its members communities – with whom they have not consulted very much – disown them.

B. The Nature of Planning

The realization that advisory committees were not working, meant that we had to go back to basics: it became necessary to look at the basic purpose of planning.  Unfortunately, this is usually defined something like, “the preparation of polices for adoption by one’s agency.”  This is far too limiting and results in problems.  Here are a few:

1. Implementation – The endorsement of a policy by a council is only the tip of the iceberg.  Making the policies work – implementing them – is more important, even though planners are not directly involved.

2. Commitment – For successful implementation commitment cannot be limited to the voting majority of a board of directors or council, nor to the short period it takes to fashion a coalition to secure the support of the majority.  In addition, the other staff responsible for carrying out changes in the planner’s own and related agencies much feel committed, as must the important interest groups which can stop the implementation at a later stage, e.g., lobby for defeat of the project budget for a later year.

The nurturing of a feeling of commitment requires involvement of major implementors during the formulation stage.  This means that their problems and interests much also be addressed.

3. Systems and Multi-purpose Environments – Although the planner must start with his own agency’s concerns, he much quickly related to the wider system.  Edmund Burke (1) suggests that the system isn’t an abstraction; it lives through formal and informal networks.  The planner must tap into this network to consult with the other forces in the community, because planning is really an intervention in the system – or from the citizen’s point of view – an intervention in the community.  Therefore, the planner must be ready to explain how his proposals will not just not have negative impacts on the community, but will in many cases solve pre-existing problems that community was experiencing.

4. Advocacy – All professions function by promoting a certain world view.  Planning is not old enough to have outgrown this tendency, as evidenced by the debate of a decade ago, usually in the name of the poor and the impotent.  However, acting to protect the meek, the silent majority, the future generations, or various dispersed, large-scale considerations, when the active community or the client doesn’t agree with it, has created ill-will.  Maturity brings humility and the sacrifice of preconception to sensitivity (e.g., Jung’s dichotomy of knowledge vs. understanding).  This should not be resented, however, since no professional should presume that his education provided him with solutions before he has heard the problems or talked with the ‘stakeholders.’

5. “Planning as a general activity” – This idea is from George Chadwick (2).  He defines planning in rather broad terms that are most appropriate to this discussion.  His message is simple: a) everyone plans, not just planners, and b) planning requires the building of mental images of the plan environment arrived at through testing.  In other words, the planner needs to build a multi-dimensional image of both the real environment and the environment-after-implementation.

The mental activity feeds upon not only the collected data and the ideas provided by a review of related literature, but more importantly upon the mental images of those who look at the reality from different vantage points and scale than the planner.  The question then is: how well does the public participation satisfy this need of the planner?

C. Networks

“We are each the centre of a web of social bonds that radiate outward to the people whom we know intimately, those whom we know well, those whom we know casually, and to the wider society beyond.  These are our social networks.  Society affects us primarily by the tugs on the strands of our networks – and shaping our attitudes, providing opportunities, making demands on us, and so forth.  And it is by tugging on those same strands that we make our individual impacts on society – influencing other peoples’ opinions, obtaining ‘favours’ from ‘insiders,’ forming action groups.  Even the most seemingly formal of institutions, such as bureaucracies, are in many ways, to the people who know them well, frames around the networks of personal ties.” (3)

The above quote is a rather academic introduction to what has become a trendy concept lately, especially among women’s groups trying to counter the influence of – and to a certain extent copy – “old boy networks.”  However, it is also an important concept in the understanding of communities, whether one is a structural sociologist, as the above authors are, or a community worker, as I am.

Successful people in all fields have always developed a rather far-flung network which has proved useful in providing feedback in one’s own specialty and in providing assistance in dealing with the variety of day-to-day problems to which career people cannot afford to give much attention.  Today, networks are not seen as semi-formal clubs that have an air of exclusiveness.  Instead, they are so informal that they become, not things, but a process that is called “networking.”

Therefore, to most innovative planners, networking is something that is already used, even though the term might be new.  The ‘net’ probably includes counterparts in other agencies, other professionals in sister departments, and close friends.  In order for the planner to be able to get a clear idea of how a policy will be implemented and exactly what will be changed as a result, the net must be enlarged to include the ‘nodes’ in the various affected communities.  These communities often take the form of organizations.  Quite often, though, either no formal organization will exist or its structure will not be useful or otherwise approachable.

Using others via networking requires adherence to a code of sorts.  For planning purposes, it means: 1) aim for information rather than emotional support (e.g., using it only to gain agreement with one’s own view of things), 2) be ready to reciprocate (be available to others when they need information and feedback), and 3) be discrete in the use of information, although it is not necessary to be secretive, just subtle, as William Ouchi, author of Theory Z (4) would say.

D. The Changing Political Climate and Cultural Values

All planners need to be sensitive to shifts in the ever-changing non-physical environment of its population.  A good public participation program will provide the planners with a constant update of this factor.  Some of the changes are relevant to the discussion at hand.  It will also provide a nice balance to reliance on the national and international readings – not always reflected in each community – available in the media.

1. “Small is beautiful” is the catch phrase of those who propose smaller-scale government and the decentralization and diffusion of expertise.  This group’s influence is growing, creating a climate which is leading citizens to assert their own local solutions over large, institutional solutions.

2. The average participant today is better informed about planning, is more able to research problems, and because of more demands being made on this time, is demands that his participation be more effective.  Participants are also more likely to start from the premise that they have power, not much less than planners have.  These people are also more able to define their own interests in the larger context and therefore be less likely to accept an expert’s definition of the ‘common good.’

3. Concerns about poverty and protection of the environment have become less crucial.  Security, especially economic security (e.g., jobs, property values), is what most communities see as the bottom line.  This will not only mean that studies may turn out differently, but that they should be reformulated or not be started in the first place.

4. Resentment is becoming a significant factor.  People who are not asked to participate will become cynical, but people who are invited to participate but are ignored, become resentful and angry.  The former induces inactivity, but the latter activism.  Resentment is caused by people being treated badly.  It is hard for planners to tell if an ignored community representative will skulk away, never to be heard of again, or will recount his treatment to his neighbours and colleagues, igniting a groundswell of protest, a veritable volcano of oppositional energy.  The growth in larger institutions has been accompanied by a growth in resentment as a political factor.


The insights mentioned above forced us to isolate the basic element in the public participation approach that causes the problem.  The answer quickly revealed itself: formality.  The programs, because they sought to create an obligatory exchange between the public corporation and its public for the first time, were designed with a great deal of structure so that all parties would know where they stood.  Communication was sacrificed for certainty.  In a sense, public participation is the legacy of the implementation of a principle that the public didn’t understand and that politicians and the staff often resented.

A. Components

After a dozen years of to-ing and fro-ing, there is much less uncertainty.  Citizens are much more aware of how decision-making works; staff are starting to see the advantages of consultation; and politicians have learned to respect – if not like – citizen power.  As a formal system, public participation is starting to get in the way.  Citizens have realized that power is not really dependent on exercising ‘rights’ (access to information; access to politicians): too often the information is unintelligible or irrelevant; more often than not ‘being heard’ means standing at a podium reading remarks to a few staff and politicians easily distracted by a kibitzing colleague or some urgent memo sitting in front of them, and getting no feedback or questions before hearing a perfunctory “thank you” from the chair.

The alternative – informality – is simply the relative absence of the elements of structure.  For public participation this means the far less reliance on:

* long printed reports supposedly designed for the public consumption
* use of media to alert the public
* reliance on public meetings as the main forum for two-way communications
* requirement that input from the public by in writing or in the form of presentations at hearings.

These elements are being replaced by an informal process called community consultation for all four studies now underway in the department.  The process requires the planning team to:
* identify in advance the affected communities of interest
* identify the individuals within each community who are willing to network
* contact the contact person whenever questions arise in the planner’s mind about and idea

B. The Role of Each

This is networking.  It is no different from the times when individuals are considering personal action and they seek out the concerns and ideas of their friends and family.  It is no different from the way that successful administrators develop proposals for changes in rules, etc.  William Ouchi, in Theory Z, describes the way that these internal decisions are arrived at in the Japanese corporation:

“When an important decision needs to be made in a Japanese organization, everyone who will feel its impact is involved in making it . . .  That will often mean sixty to eighty people directly involved in making the decision.  A team of three will be assigned the duty of talking to all sixty to eighty people and, each time a significant modification arises, contacting all the people again.  The team will repeat the process until a true consensus has been achieved. . . . What is important is not the decision itself but rather now committed and informed the people are.” (4)

He goes on to point out how frustrating this principle is to American and other Western businessmen.  However, long-time observers point out that, despite the time it takes to make a decision, the Japanese are much faster to implement it.  Perhaps the Western frustration reflects that fact that, unlike stakeholders in public participants programs, employees can’t take their complaints about being left out concerns to the media.  But, Ouchi clearly shows that this consideration isn’t the key one: having all affected employees being willing to quickly and efficiently implement company policies is.

There is an important lesson here about the concepts of formality and informality: the informal should always precede the formal.  The informal process is where good policy is created; formal processes are where policies are formally adopted.  To skip the informal will only produce policies that are stillborn, either never to be implemented, or ones that are forever handicapped.

C. Comparison of the Two Approaches

To more fully understand the application of the two concepts in the way that the public is involved in public decision-making, I have prepared Table 1 below:

Table 1: Comparison of the Two Approaches (Formal Public Participation vs. Informal Community Consultation
Factor    Public Participation (formal)    Community Consultation (informal)
1    Rationale    To allow citizens to exercise rights    To provide corporation better idea of impacts/ reactions
2    Arena of participation    Citizens participate in the corporation    Corporation participates in the community
3    Participants    Citizens in large numbers, sometimes as part of groups    Leaders and other ‘trust people’ in smaller numbers
4    Organization Units    Programme    The encounter, based on process
5    Main form of communication    Written    Oral
6    Focus of communication    Proposals    Planners enquires
7    Basis of citizen certainty    Role, resources    Effectiveness to ability to influence
8    Focus of staff time    Coordinating, arranging, writing    Personal communication, analysing
9    Orientation of participants    Postured, inflexible    Open, creative, thoughtful
10    Initiative    Surrendered by all to programme    Each party individually
11    Control of corporate involvement    Management, specialists    Planners
12    Evaluation    At end of study, by independent team    Ongoing via feedback, adjustment cycles

1. The Mass Audience.  Factors 3-5 reflect on one of the most important problems with public participation.  Because of the need to allow for the participation of any citizen who feels affected or interested, organizers must anticipate a large number of participants.  This imposes on the process severe limitations: communication must be limited, depersonalized (i.e., not geared to the individuals’ needs), and stilted by being put into writing or formally presented.

The informal approach bypasses all these limitations by limiting the number of people communicated with to about 15 to 25 people, each ‘representing’ different interests.  Communication is personal and allows for each party to get the information it considers relevant and effectively makes the point it wants to make.  There is not need to squeeze a lot of communication into the limited space of a report or meeting (in which most participants, including staff, are passive).

2. Posturing (factors 6 and 9).  The formal approach always involves having the staff “get its act together” before taking it “on the road.”  Even where participation is sought fairly early in a study, a report or elaborate presentation will be prepared that will: a) show the public that the staff have gotten prepared and b) give the public something to react to.

It is this preparation that so often starts the programme off on the wrong foot.  Even though it provides a focus for the process, the public are reminded that they are not the experts and this puts them in the position of having to first understand the material and then to critique it.  The planners are also put in the position to first explain and then defend what they have prepared, a position that is impossible to retreat from.

The informal approach is based on a series of exchanges between ‘fellow’ planners, since all people are planners.  They share information via the asking of questions, and they share their guesses as to eventual outcomes if or if not certain things happen.  They deal only with where their interests overlap, not on the full breadth of the planner’s study. This open communication is both more efficient with the participants’ time, but the parties are free to think aloud about what a certain option might mean to the citizen’s community, without feeling that he is accountable in the formal sense.

3. Inside the corporation (factors 8 and 11).  The formal approach is complicated.  It forces corporate involvement in the programme to be formal.  The great number of details require specialists to make sure the arrangements are made and monitored; the high stakes involved require management to check out all matters in detail.  The planners become passive during this phase of their study, usually involved answered – cautiously – questions from the public, knowing that until the events are completed several weeks or months later, they can do no more ‘work’ on the study. In our studies, we even had an advisory committee to advise on the public participation process.

The informal approach, in contrast, puts the control back into the participants’ hands, both citizens and planners.  The community relations specialist (either on staff or on contract) is not needed to make all the arrangements and advise on the details of publicity, presentations, and agendas.  Management allow staff a freer hand in communicating with the public and can use their time networking with their peers in sister agencies.  This is especially freer for staff, who are able to vary the schedule easily (since it is not ‘written in stone’), e.g., even though fact-finding usually precedes analysis, if the latter produces a new option that needs study, the planner can stop his analysis consultation to do it.  That would not be possible in a formal process.

4. Initiative and attitude (factor 10).  The formal process provides so much structure that initiative is surrendered by staff, politicians, and citizens alike to the appetite of the programme.[[?]] The absence of much of the structure allows new attitudes to emerge.  Let’s look at the planners first.

The planner, focussing at all times on impacts, commitment, and implementability, uses his control over the whole integrated process (i.e., public participation is not segregated from the ‘technical’ work) to build a fully professional attitude toward people and communities.  The attitudes I am talking about are the ones that all professions should engender, but often forget or bury under other priorities.  They are humility and scepticism.

Even where the profession works within an institutional framework, as teachers and planners usually do, it can’t forget that it serves people.  Its practitioners must never place a ‘truth’ or principle above that relationship; otherwise, the community will become the object to be changed, rather than the partner to be served.

Scepticism is equally important.  Without it, certainty in the mind of the planner-as-scientist comes too quickly; myth and conventional ‘wisdom’ are accepted without question; imperfect solutions are sold rather than challenged.  Scepticism also keeps the planner active, both as listener, and in providing feedback to those with whom he consults.  Prodding by him is rewarded by prodding of him and his thinking; scepticism often needs a nudge.

Of course, this attitude serves him not only in contacts with the community.  In fact, he should already have this kind of attitude and relationship with the inanimate world and with his colleagues in sister agencies.  It is really only a simple matter to extend it to the communities of interest, as equals.  If it doesn’t exist already, in these other areas, it will take more work and discipline to do so.

The citizen will experience a new attitude that involves concentrating on what I call the three Is:

* define one’s own interests
* seek out information needed to articulate that/those interests
* influence the parties that have control over factors that need to be changed or retained.

Formal public participation does little to enable this process.  Rights are exercised, regardless of whether it is in the citizen’s or community’s interest; agency bumf is laboured over without regard for what information is really needed; and at the end, the citizen ‘gets heard,’ regardless of whether the officials are influenced or not.

D. Peripheral Changes

1. Politicians, as has been mentioned, have become referees in the formal approach.  They are left out of the process , except to approve status reports as each stage begins, often requiring budgetary approval.

The informal approach promises to be much less divisive and should relieve the elected people of the need to be left out of the process until there is little room to manouevre.  The planner should be free to develop a direct link to the individual politicians as a way of getting leads to the best people to talk to in the community.  However, there should be no need or temptation for the politicians to play ‘middleman’; rather, the citizens and planners should be directly in touch with each other.  However, the politicians, by referring people in the community to the planner will hear back on how things are going, better preparing them to play a more formal approval role at the study’s conclusion.

The result will be greater involvement by shifting the time commitment on a study from the formal end of it to the earlier periods.  It will use some of their leadership and creativity and ‘savvy,’ rather than their negotiation skills that they are not that well placed to acquire or use.

2. Citizens, at least the average citizens, would appear to be disenfranchised by the informal approach.  Until the Planning Committee distributes the staff’s final proposal and publicizes its hearing, the average guy appears to be left out. But the average person is really also left out by the formal process.  Sure, he’s provided access to information and public events, but what chance does he have to understand the proposals or to achieve any protection of his interests?  And how doe his problems get addressed?

In reality, the average person doesn’t have the time or talent to related directly to agencies.  Instead he relies on the same networks the planner will try to tap: a) to watch out for threats and opportunities in different areas (e.g., his union watches the employer and the national income and inflation levels; his community associations watches us), b) to act on his behalf on most matters, informing him later or simultaneously, and c) to engage his active involvement for the major matters where a threat is sensed.

The informal approach really involves him in a more natural way by making use of the ingrained networks that already exist, be they formal organisations or informal contract nets or even ‘paper networks’ that are just emerging through the efforts of a few articulate writers.  He is involved indirectly through conversations with those that planners have been talking to (or others who have talked to them) or their elected representatives or from articles in the media.

By bypassing these networks, the formal process has ignored a) the influence and communication skills of people already known and trusted by the average person, b) the realism that only these people who have one foot in the community and the other in larger institutions can provide, and c) the certainty and consistency of input and feedback that ordinary citizens cannot provide.

3. Media tend to thrive on events and happenings which the informal approach would greatly limit.  The agency would have less occasion to issue media releases or hold media conferences.  The ‘grand-standers’ would not have the event and the media to give his words greater gravity that they deserve.  The confrontations and misunderstandings would also get less attention, either because they would not happen or would happen in an informal, personal setting (and be cleared up quickly).

Rather, the media would be included in the planner’s network as a source of nodes and for other feedback.  In turn, the media person would get an idea of the kind of issues the planner had been exposed to (there is not suggestion that issues (5) would be avoided; in fact, they would very much grown in importance) and who the actors are.  The result may be less news, but probably much more of the kinds of material that the media is criticized for not carrying: background stories.  If some in the community feel left out (where the planner neglects to make contact with them) or ignored (where the planner seems to preach rather than ask questions and listen), the media will be available as a ‘second forum.’


Although experience with our use of the informal approach is minimal so far, there have been serious questions raised by fellow professionals and by community people that require attention.

A. “Cross Fertilization”

Some suggest that the important contact communities and citizens have with each other, at public events such as advisory committees and public meetings, will be lost.

Although I agree that such contact is important and that the informal approach does not directly provide it, I would suggest that these forums provide only limited help to the groups.  Those that are on the same side of the issue may become close and form a comeradery or coalition, but often at the expense of the interests of their respective communities.

On the other hand, if they are in opposition they will probably come to avoid each other.  In the two studies mentioned earlier, we found it necessary to divide the landowners from the recreation and environmental groups because of the intimidation that the latter groups felt from the former when both were at the same meetings.

However, the informal approach does not preclude gatherings as they occur at the initiative of the community nodes.  In fact, the planner’s sequential visits with community leaders and ‘trust people’ will automatically simulate these contacts, because the networking process automatically involves thinking aloud what one has previously learned.  It should be remembered that the planner is not trying to create a single agreement based on a single problem and its environment based on his contact with others.

B. “Only My Friends”

Several associates suggested that the informal approach is quite elitist; that planners, given the freedom to choose whom to talk to, would talk only with those they liked or felt would agree with them, those who they could trust to be ‘discrete,’ or, equally bad, only with those who understand the planning process.

To the first suggestion, the answer is probably not.  First, the planner will quickly find that it is impossible to limit consultation to only those who support him.  The ‘word’ will get out quickly enough and the others will simply initiate the contact with the planner.  Further, those contacts will be badly tainted by suspicion.

Second, the maturity that I hinted at earlier will cause the planner to quickly realize that it is opposition – or at least good criticism – that will allow him to be clear about his thinking and therefore accurate and compelling in his proposals.  Conversely, the planner that lacks that maturity will quickly get his comeuppance when his proposals are presented, only to find the people who have been ignored present and ready to fight.

The second suggestion is more accurate and raises an important point about political enfranchisement.  The nodes of a community will, obviously, be above average in their understanding of the larger system and in their ability to influence the pressure points in that system (the two simply go together).  This, in fact, is their value to the process and to the other members of their community.  They are brokers and, to be able to be successful, they must be trusted by both the other nodes and the community.  It has been to the detriment of formal public participation that the value of these people has pretty much been overlooked.  It is only realistic to work with these people.

But elitism implies more than dealing exclusively with the power people; it implies that certain whole communities are overlooked because they do not have ‘clout’ The informal approach, however, does not judge such matters between communities, only that a particular community – whether or not it has yet formed a common consciousness – will be affected.  What follows next will be to find the best person within that community to relate to during the study.

This raises still a third matter: what about the planners whose knowledge of the larger community is so poor that he misses certain affected interests?  First, the planner must know that knowledge of the community is an important part of his expertise; second he will have available the experience of colleagues; third, he will, by using networking well, continually be discovering other interests and other nodes; and fourth, the planner will quickly learn from mistakes, since feedback is the backbone of networking.  What the informal networking will challenge is the practice in many planners and engineers to change localities when they move up their ‘career ladder.’  These people will not appreciate either local conditions nor develop a feel for the communities’ interests or leadership.

C. “Who’s Interested in Population Forecasts?”

If the study is too technical or is very general at the outset, which is typical, what possible communities could provide useful input?  This comment primarily came from planners.  It reflects a certain disdain for laymen’s abilities to provide any help, because most citizens can’t see the ‘overall.’  Even the most open public participation efforts, when involving technical or abstract matters, has, in fact, proved singularly unsuccessful in eliciting interest or involvement from the public.

The problem, therefore, is not unique to the informal approach.  And the question remains, what are the communities of interest for, say, a population forecast?  The answer requires some inventiveness.  First, there are those who make their living doing such forecasts.  They will offer free advice on the realization they will gain some insights and credit in return, and offer insights from different applications of the field.  Second, there is the way forecasts are done.  If one takes into consideration only past trends, measured at aggregate levels, feedback from the community will be of no use.  However, if the planner wanted to test those past trends against the trends presently taking shape, there is no better resource than the community, even though community people will turn off immediately if they are asked to review the planners’ work.  My community, for instance, during their annual membership drive ask residents how many children up to age 5 live in their home.  This provides counts of the school-age population five years in advance.

D. “Who has the Power?”

Sherry Arnstein, in her classic 1969 article (6), developed a ‘ladder’ of eight concepts upon which an agency’s public participation program could be based.  The top ‘rung’ was “citizen power.”  Quite obviously, power was the name of the game in those days.

However, power is understood differently today.  It is not considered appropriate for any one party to try to ‘corner the market.’  It is not even good to try to share it (e.g., enlarge the table so that every one can share the power).  Rather, power is inherent in the individual and only diminishes, in the aggregate sense, if proxied to others.

The answer, therefore, is that power should be dispersed.  The agency should not try to usurp power over the community, nor should the community try to run its institutions, other than through existing formal mechanisms of the ballot box.  And the informal approach will best serve this model.


It may be presumptuous to ask, “what if the informal approach became the norm?”  The questions, however, is still useful to ask.

A. The Maturity of the Profession

First, planning will be ushered into a more realistic era.  Planners will be less likely to feel they are the only people who can see the problems of the built and natural environment.  Planning will no longer be seen as something that is done to people and communities, rather than for them (and in many cases by them).

Planners have also had a fetish for getting their masters to make public statements of policy that the planner can point to in the same way that a teacher points to his or her students repeating pedagogical truisms.  It is not enough to have good intentions and good disciples; rather the objective is to expose the larger community (including the planner and the agency) to a process of discovery of the elements of the problem and the dynamics of the change that might ensue if certain parties take certain actions.

Scowling at “narrow self interests” as reflected by vexatious citizens acting within the mob context is itself narrow and self-serving.  Planners are being equally narrow by excluding the legitimate interests of communities, regardless of how the interests are expressed.  Planning will gain respect by giving respect.  That will probably never happen if the profession limits itself to communicating only to large audiences at arm’s length.

B. Strengthening the Role of Communities

Second, communities will be strengthened.  The informal approach not only depends on strong communities but, true to an organic approach, encourages and supports them.  In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, community development and social animation were widely practiced; today, they have almost disappeared domestically (they still thrive in the Third World arena where paternalism is still the norm).  Their failure is the result of an approach based on contrived intervention, usually by senior levels of government in the name of a campaign such as the War on Poverty.  I experienced this as a volunteer with the Company of Young Canadians in 1969-70.

Planning, however, is not a contrived intervention but an early warning system of change in institutional commitment.  The planner will, by relating his mandate to community-scale issues, provide an important linkage.  Hopefully also, the planner will play an important role in respecting the value of diversity and stimulating interaction with living systems.

C. Freelance Planning

Third, we may see the appearance of free-lance planning.  Although planning is an integral part of all organisms, the informal approach opens the possibility that institutions may begin to opt for acting together to hire a planner to deal with a particular problem area as it affects all of them and the community.  This would:

* allow the planner to look a the whole system and the context of the problem
* ensure that the planner will have the relevant community contacts to match the problem area that he or she has the specialized in, and
* allow commitment towards a solution to build simultaneously and interactively within all affected communities and institutions.

This will result in the planner becoming a ‘process professional,” a person whose primary role is to determine the path of discovery, rather than its outcome.  He will never allow himself to be pitted against the community interests. His professional pride will be to ensure his policies are implemented, that a solved problem stays solved for quite some time, and the communities he worked with are more better at being pro-active planners for their own entities.

D. Microelectronics and Telecommunications

Finally, there is the wave of electronic innovations we now see coming onto the scene.  Besides becoming a new force that planners will need to accommodate in the built form, this trend will alter the way different parts of the society interact.  There are two ways that changes could go.  Communication between people could become even more centralised, allowing for more control over who speaks to whom and who finds out what, as well as create threats to personal privacy.  Or, as more recent futurist writings have suggested, there would be less control from central sources.

I am more impressed by the latter scenario.  The growth of ‘narrow-casting’ via the growth in the number of magazines and radio and TV stations and the popularity of home computers (I have had one since 1982) linked to such popular databases as The Source, suggest that the technology will allow people to reach out and establish relationships (networking) with many more people, regardless of distance.  Among other things, this could allow nodes of similar communities in different geographical areas to ‘compare notes’ regularly.

For the informal approach, this means that a valuable tool is now becoming available.  Once he or she has met the nodes in person, the planner can use the ‘keyboard connection’ to pose questions, pass on updates, and keep track of these interactions and the contact lists.  This is a much more appropriate and wise use than the idea of instant, electronic referenda that is often mentioned.  It must be remembered that referenda are formal elements and, unless they are preceded by informal consultation, the referenda questions, the timing, and the understanding of the results will probably be wrong.


I hope I have established in the mind of the reader the elements of the formal and informal approaches to relating planning to its ultimate clients and in understanding that both approaches have their role.  Author Marilyn Ferguson, writing about the emerging social transformation (7) follows the many threads of a quiet conspiracy of individuals and informal groupings to remake the society into a more human and responsive place.  Networking is the way this momentum will continue to grow.  It will also probably be the most important tool used to make sure the changes are sensitive to people’s needs.

I have always accepted, as an article of faith, that all possibilities and all interests must be considered before any solution can avoid being part of another problem.  It is hard for one person to think so broadly.  But for a society that is well enough linked to develop true collective intelligence, it is entirely possible and probable.


Burke, Edmund M., A Participatory Approach to Planning.  N.Y. Human Sciences Press, 1979, Chapter 7.

Chadwick, George.  A Systems View of Planning: Towards a Theory of Urban and Regional Planning Process.  Oxford/Toronto: Pergammon, 1978, Introduction & chapter 2.

Fischer, Claude, et. al.  Networks and Places: Social Relations in the Urban Setting.  N.Y.: Free Press, 1977.  Page vii.

Ouchi, William G. Theory Z.  N.Y.: Avon, 1981, page 7.

Preister, Kevin & James Kent.  “Issue-Centered Approach to Social Impacts: From Assessment to Management,” in Social Impact Assessment, 71-72, pp. 3-13.

Arnstein, Sherry.  “Eight Rungs of the Ladder of Citizen Participation,” in Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol. 34, No. 4, July 1969.

Ferguson, Marilyn.  The Aquarian Conspiracy: Social Transformation in the 1980s, Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1980, general.


The 23 years that have passed since this paper was written has seen changes in the field of public consultation.  More use is being made of public opinion polls, and new techniques, such as deliberative polling and focus groups have been mixed into the bag of tricks of professionals.

During the 14 years until I retired, the informal process continued to be developed. Although informal elements were added, many formal ones remained.  The list of community groups grew to include many special interest groups (environmental, social issues, business associations, condominium boards), elected officials (representatives of four school boards, 11 local councils, and two conservation authorities), as well as many individuals, totally over 5000.  The list was put into database software so that mailings could be made more easily and sublists selected for focussed consultation.  A bilingual newsletter, In Process//Processus, was started, ending only in 1996.  The process used to revise the official plan in 1988 was recognized by the Ontario Professional Planners Institute in the early 1990s with a special award.

But for the most part, interest in this new paradigm has not grown.  Practitioners in this field, along with their planner associates, don’t seem to have much interest in looking in depth at the theoretical bases of their work, to ties to power distribution, to the evolution of democratic institutions, or to cybernetics, the science of control.

The author was laid off in late 1995, and took early retirement.  He did very little consulting in the field, and no writing, preferring to focus his attention on a hobby that came out of his 22 years with the Regional Municipality (which itself was “laid off” in 2000 when provincially mandated amalgamation resulted in it being melded with the 11 municipalities that co-existed within its boundaries, into the ‘new’ City of Ottawa).  This paper and the work around it is judged to be the high point of his 22 years.

Transcribing this paper into machine readable format for the first time has provided an opportunity to review my thoughts at a point in the past, and to provide posterity with some context for it.  A small amount of improved phraseology has been added.

Other forums in which the author expounded on the ideas in this paper:

“Informal Policy Planning,” in Policy Options, Vol. 4-3 (May-June 1983), pp 58-60 [a publication of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, based in Montreal]
“Informal Participation” in Constructive Citizen Participation, Vol 11-2 (September 1983) pp. 2-4 [the newsletter owner, Des Connor, a long-time consultant who had provided the RMOC its first public participation program in 1972-74, added the following comment after the article, “I trust that many of you will agree that Chris Bradshaw’s concept of informal participation represents a real breakthrough in the theory and practice of public participation.”]
“Formal vs. Informal Participation”, a paper presented to the First International Conference on Social Impact Assessment, Richmond, BC, October 26, 1982
? paper presented to the convention of the World Futures Society, Washington DC, June 1992
“Informal Participation: A New Dimension for CP?” in Citizen Participation, spring 1983 [published by the Lincoln Filene Centre for Citizenship and Public Affairs, Tufts University, Boston MA]
“Accentuating the Informal: Impact Assessment from the Public Participation Perspective,” notes for a presentation to the annual meeting of the International Association for Impact Assessment, May 25, 1993, Detroit, MI
“Redesigning Public Consultation to Overcome by Bias Against Green Transportation” paper presented to a workshop at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, Washington DC, January 1993


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