The house always wins: the ethics of participatory planning?

Posted: January 15th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics | 3 Comments »

At a public participation workshop a few years ago, I met a planner who ran the participation team for a large city. He spoke eloquently about working with citizens and with government on various, at times controversial, planning challenges and led us in some remarkably realistic exercises.

He took pains to point out that his group was advisory only — they had no role with the city government to enforce the results of public participation. So I asked him, privately, how these participatory planning sessions influenced city government; he smiled ruefully, and admitted that officials often paid very little attention to them.

I don’t think this is unusual, and it led me to consider who “wins” in participatory planning:

  • Planners and facilitators often do: it can be stimulating to prepare for participatory sessions and great fun to run them;
  • Politicians and other government officials may: they are seen listening to the people, and, if the project results are popular, they win big; if not, in the event that lack of follow-up is noticed, they can always argue that events have made the planning results outdated and impractical;
  • Developers and other project sponsors may: if the bridge, hotel, or shopping mall gets built, even with substantial changes, they profit, and they can generally pull out if it seems likely that they won’t;
  • But what of the “citizen participants”? They invest their time and often their energy and commitment, but at best it’s a gamble. Perhaps their concern will be addressed, perhaps their requests will be incorporated in the final design, but often, of course, they won’t.

As a wise gambler knows, the house always wins. If you play the slots in Nevada, even if you win from time to time, each pull of the lever on a $1 machine costs you, on average, around twenty cents.

An ethical casino publicizes its payout percentage, and emphasizes that gambling is entertainment not (for gamblers) a money-making activity. For a planner or facilitator, what’s the ethical way to recruit citizen participants and to structure planning workshops when we know that their invested time and energy may not pay off?

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3 Comments on “The house always wins: the ethics of participatory planning?”

  1. 1 Tim Bonnemann said at 1:17 pm on August 5th, 2010:

    The most solid framework I have seen in this area comes from IAP2. Check out their Code of Ethics for Public Participation Practitioners ( as well as their Core Values for the Practice of Public Participation (

    This is how you achieve the integrity that quality public participation requires.

    In the scenario you outline above, it sounds like the project sponsors weren’t acting in good faith.

  2. 2 The Ethics of Public Participation said at 2:11 pm on August 6th, 2010:

    […] “It seems the topic of ethics and integrity in public participation is coming up more often these days (see my comments here, here). […]

  3. 3 Beth Offenbacker said at 4:52 pm on August 6th, 2010:

    The questions that Chris raises and that Tim discusses are good ones.

    One related question I have pondered often is, “How can we be neutral advocates for a process when we haven’t designed it?”

    More and more I hear that processes are specified up front in the RFP. In these instances they aren’t really drawing on our experience about what works best in engaging people, we are just worker bees.

    Moreover, the pre-designed process may or may not comply with ethical guidelines for the profession. (And the question of which code of ethics should apply is an interesting one too.)

    How do people handle this kind of situation?

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