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A Primer on the Politics of Plan Implementation

Too often planning commissioners and citizen groups seem to think that once their plans are completed their work is over. … Well, not exactly.

Too often planning commissioners and citizen groups seem to think that once their plans are completed their work is over. Of course, there’s always the need to gain formal adoption of the plan from the city council or the county commission, but that’s just a little formality, right? And once adopted, “they” will start implementing it, right?

Well, not exactly. The community group or planning commission which takes either formal adoption or subsequent implementation lightly will be sorely disappointed when their plan “dies on the vine” (or to use the tried and true expression, “gathers dust on the shelf”).

Adoption and implementation need to be seen not as after-the-planning, optional activities perhaps for someone else, but as integral parts of the planning process for those who drafted the plan. Though politics is often irrational, our chances for success can be maximized by rationally and systematically approaching the politics of plan adoption and implementation.

illustration of the word "politics" on a rolled up newspaper

Winning Support for the Plan

Winning support for a plan from public officials needs to be seen as a community relations task. Ask yourself, “How can we get them as excited about this plan as we are?” Here are several steps you might want to take.

Discuss the plan with any willing public official informally before the formal hearing. This gives the official a chance to avoid ending up asking an uninformed question later in public, tips you off about what parts of the plan may be controversial, and conveys the message that this person is worth special attention.

Formally request a city council (county commission) public hearing and approval. It may be that a particular plan does not require a formal hearing and adoption, but if you know you can get that support, the process may lend credibility to your plan. It also gives the adopting body a measure of ownership over the plan.

Rally supporters once the public hearing is set. We all know the potential power of “warm bodies” at public hearings, but do not assume that plan supporters will show up without some urging.

Let supporters know the rules and procedures for hearings. Most public bodies follow protocol for their meetings and don’t look very kindly on those who violate it. Citizen-friendly cities have those rules spelled out in brochures; if not, careful observation at a few prior meetings will give you clues on how to act, and more
importantly, how not to act.

Busy public officials value those who make their cases clearly and succinctly avoiding needless repetition.

Carefully organize testimony at the public hearing. Busy public officials value those who make their cases clearly and succinctly avoiding needless repetition. Weary council members will flash appreciative smiles at citizens who limit their public testimony to: “I support what the previous speaker said.” Orchestrating your group’s testimony means figuring out a division of labor about who will stress what points so that all your comments add up to a complete, organized, non-repetitive presentation. An overview presenter at the start and a summarizer at the end help make all the testimony in between more understandable.

Seek media coverage of the public hearing. If a tree falls in the forest and no reporter covered it, did it really happen? Gaining media coverage for an event always seems to make your cause more legitimate. Plus, visible public officials are more easily held accountable.

Stage hoopla for public hearings (e.g., caravan, rally, etc.). The creation of some fun and photogenic hoopla for your hearing is helpful for pumping up plan supporters as well as for gaining media coverage.

Celebrate the council’s formal adoption of the plan. Most community groups and planning bodies forget to celebrate their victories or accomplishments. That’s a shame as such occasions are a chance to say thank you to each other and reinforce your self-esteem.

Implementing the Plan’s Recommendations

Assuming your plan has been adopted, remember that adoption does not guarantee implementation. Like adoption, implementation is a political process. To ensure that your plan is implemented, it makes sense to:

Determine the best organizational structure to carry out the plan (i.e., who’s going to be on top of the job). Without someone riding herd on plan implementation, the plan is history. Who is best positioned to do that? Who has the time, the staying power, the political legitimacy? A plan owned by everybody — a laudable goal — is owned by nobody, so some group needs to take responsibility for overseeing the plan’s implementation.

Develop priorities for plan implementation. Your plan has several dozen, or maybe several hundred, specific recommendations. So where do you start on the morning after it’s been adopted? Here are several alternative strategies:

(1) Early quick victories: Start with some actions that are non-controversial, and thus most likely to be quickly adopted, thereby boosting morale, establishing momentum, and building a track record.

(2) Importance: Start with the plan’s most important recommendation, regardless of its ease or difficulty.

(3) Linchpin: Start by addressing recommendations which pave the way for yet other recommendations to get implemented.

(4) High profile: Take some actions that are very visible and draw attention to the plan.

(5) Maximize implementers: Work to maximize the number of different parties each actively addressing at least one recommendation.

(6) Multiple fronts: Simultaneously address at least one recommendation from each of the plan’s major sections.

Prepare an annual action agenda of recommendations you hope to see implemented that year. The idea here is to bite off a manageable chunk of the plan, involving the necessary implementers in that decision. That makes it their plan as well as yours.

Prepare an annual status report of what’s been done. Keep on top of what’s being implemented and let all the relevant audiences know each year what’s been done, what has not — and why not. This helps to keep everyone’s feet to the fire.

Do an update of the plan in a few years. Every plan eventually becomes outdated. By doing an annual action agenda and status report, you will be well on your way toward the preparation of an updated plan.

Bernie Jones is Associate Director of the Colorado Center for Community Development at the University of Colorado at Denver, where he also teaches urban and regional planning. Jones has long been active in the city’s neighborhood movement, and on city-wide issues. He is also a member of the Denver Planning Board, where he has encountered the difficulties of plan implementation first-hand. Jones is the author of Neighborhood Planning: A Guide for Citizens and Planners (American Planning Association 1990).


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