Rational analysis or “muddling through”?
Early studies of policy making highlighted two extreme approaches
to decisions: a rational, analytical approach which leads
inexorably to the “right” solution, and a less
organised approach, often called “muddling through”,
in which objectives are never specified, remedial action is
taken when it becomes essential, and more important decisions
are dependent on the power struggles between interest groups.
While this second model can be seen at work in many of today’s
cities, it is unlikely to be effective in tackling the challenges
of unsustainability which we face. Equally an extreme reliance
on analysis is inappropriate in a situation in which priorities
and preferences differ and outcomes are uncertain. We have
therefore looked for practical approaches between these extremes.
Which approaches have been used?
Cities differ in the ways in which they make decisions, but
their approaches have often developed over time, rather than
being formally prescribed. In our surveys we suggested three
broad approaches: vision-led; plan-led; and consensus-led,
and asked our cities to indicate which one or two of these
best characterised their approach.
Vision-led approaches usually involve an individual (typically
the mayor or committee leader) having a clear view of the
future form of city they want, and the policy instruments
needed to achieve that vision. The focus then is on implementing
them as effectively as possible. Relatively few cities have
a visionary leader in this sense, but there is evidence that
in the past those which do have made the most progress.
Plan-led approaches involve specifying objectives and problems,
sometimes in the context of a vision statement, and adopting
an ordered procedure identifying possible solutions to those
problems, and selecting those which perform best. In the true
Objectives-led Approach the city first specifies its broad
objectives (Section 7). Problems
are highlighted as failure of current or predicted future
conditions to meet the objectives. This list of problems can
then be discussed with stakeholders to see whether they have
different perceptions of the problems. If they do, objectives
are redefined accordingly. The main drawback with this approach
is that many politicians and members of the public are less
familiar with the abstract concept of objectives (such as
improving accessibility) than they are with concrete problems
(such as the nearest job centre being 50 minutes away). Two
variants are the Target-based Approach (Section
8) and the Problem-oriented Approach (Section
Consensus-led approaches involve discussions between the
stakeholders to try to reach agreement on each of the stages
in the plan-led approach outlined in Section
6 . Ideally agreement is needed on the objectives to be
pursued and their relative importance; the problems to be
tackled and their seriousness; the policy instruments to be
considered and their appropriateness; the selection of policy
instruments which best meet the objective; and the way in
which they should be combined into an overall strategy, and
implemented. In practice much consensus-building focuses on
the choice of policy instruments, but it can be considerably
enhanced by considering objectives and problems as well. Section
5 discusses participation for consensus building more
Which approaches do cities adopt?
Few of the cities in the PROSPECTS survey considered that
they adopted any one of these approaches alone. The most common
approach is a mix of plan-led and consensus-led decision-making.
The least common were those which focus primarily on visions
Which approach is best?
There is no simple answer to this question. There are some
useful references on decision-making which consider the alternatives,
but no clear agreement between them. However, there are some
obvious pitfalls. A vision-led approach is critically dependent
on the individual with the vision. If he or she leaves office,
it may prove very difficult to avoid completely abandoning
the strategy. A plan-led approach can become unduly dependent
on professional planners, who may lose sight of the needs
of politicians and stakeholders. A consensus-led approach
may, unless agreement can be quickly reached and sustained,
lead to delay and inaction. Not surprisingly, therefore, most
cities adopt a mixed approach. The diagram shows an example
from UK practice of a cyclical approach, in which vision,
objectives and problem specification are determined through
consultations, used to develop the strategy, and reviewed
in the light of experience with implementation.
It is best therefore to choose the combination of approaches
which best suits a city’s circumstances but, having
done so, maintain it, and hence the future development of