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Social Planning

Abstract and Keywords

Social planning emphasizes the application of rational problem-solving techniques and data-driven approaches to identify, determine, and help coordinate services for target populations. Social planning is carried out by a myriad of organizations—from federal agencies to community organizations—attempting to solve problems ranging from child welfare to aging. The advantages and disadvantages of this empirically objective data-driven approach, including different forms, will be discussed along with past, current, and future trends within the field of social work.

Keywords: social planning, planning councils, comprehensive rational planning, incrementalism, decision-making, rational problem-solving, geographic information systems, spatial mismatch, sustainable development

Social Planning

Prototypical social planning is the application of rational problem-solving techniques and data-driven methodologies to conceiving, developing, coordinating, and delivering human services. Social planning occurs in federal, state, county, and city bureaus, and in the voluntary sector, including community councils, United Ways, Area Agencies on Aging, voluntary associations, and faith-based organizations. Planning can be carried out locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally and addresses such problems as poverty, child and family welfare, aging, housing, crime, delinquency, mental health, and so forth. Social planners function in a variety of disciplines, including social work, urban planning, public administration, health care, and public policy.

The social planning rubric has been broadly applied to encompass an array of activities, from technical experts systematically analyzing data to facilitators incorporating input from participating citizens. Nevertheless, Rothman (2008) states that prototypical social planning emphasizes data-driven and carefully calibrated change grounded in social science principles and empirical objectivity. The approach is viewed as evidenced-based and technocratic, and rationality is the dominant ideal.

Historical Trends in Social Planning

The origins of modern social planning can be traced to the urban transformation inspired by the industrial revolution in the late 19th century. Through rational planning, charity organizations and settlement movements attempted to avoid duplicating services, indiscriminate spending, and fraud. In 1908 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first community welfare and social agency councils were formed. They attempted to centralize social planning in order to improve service coordination, efficiency, and quality. With the advent of World War I, centralized agencies developed war chests to efficiently coordinate services. After the war, these agencies and war chests became community chests and councils. They were the harbinger of raising and overseeing welfare funds and engaging in large-scale community planning. These community chests and councils were the predecessors of organizations such as the United Way, and sought to rationally allocate funds among a number of social agencies providing various services. The New Deal of 1930s and 1940s ushered in important changes, as voluntary agencies, which had been dominant in social planning, were supplanted, and social planning expanded, by federal, state, and local agencies. The federal government became more active and consolidated social planning, applying it across large groups of people.

The 1950s arrived on a wave of American affluence. For first time in the history of the world, the majority of a nation's population began to live above a minimum poverty level. With the advent of the liberal presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, gains in civil rights and concomitant changes in legislation provided momentum and optimism for the effectiveness of social planning into the 1960s. The Johnson administration declared a War on Poverty in which it promoted equality of opportunity, with massive sums of money -allocated to solve numerous social problems Major federal social programs were initiated in health, housing, preschool (Head Start), elementary and secondary education, urban renewal, poverty, and unemployment. Typically, these initiatives mandated citizen and client participation to complement technocratic planning. However, soon programs such as the Federal Model Cities shifted greater power and responsibility back to city mayors, councils, and managers. The 1968 Comprehensive Health Planning Act provided funds to involve all the stakeholders, including providers and consumers, to examine health needs and resources, and strengthened it in 1974 with the Health Care Resource, Planning, and Development Act mandating 60% consumer involvement.

Nevertheless, with the advent of the Richard Nixon administration optimism for the benefits of social planning began to erode. The Vietnam War, the oil shock of the early 1970s, a mild recession and later inflation culminated with the Nixon administration attempting to cut spending and rollback progressive legislation, while transfering responsibility back to the states. The 1980s entailed an attack on social programs and welfare by the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. Funds devoted to social problems were significantly reduced, taxes were cut, and military spending soared, while supply-side economists proclaimed that market forces would resolve social issues. As the 20th century ended, the Bill Clinton administration attempted to achieve liberal ends by conservative means. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 now funded state programs with federal block grants and state resources. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grants ceded most authority to states, but restricted states from reducing welfare by more than 20%. Receiving welfare was now contingent on clients going to work or undertaking activities, such as education or training.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the George W. Bush administration incurred tremendous expense and trillions of dollars of deficit as a result of large trade imbalances, a war on terrorism, and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the second Bush administration came to a close in 2008, the malfeasance of large banks and financial institutions led to a banking crisis and the onset of the “Great Recession.”

The Barack Obama administration began amid two wars and a government bailout of the nation’s largest banks, insurers, mortgage lenders, and investment houses. But the damage of the Great Recession was already extensive. Global economic activity shrank by one half of a percent, 7 million Americans lost their jobs, and another 8.8 million more involuntarily worked part-time. The national unemployment rate rose to 10 percent (Katz & Bradley, 2013). Despite this, Obama was able to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, providing the opportunity for 30 million people to acquire health insurance. Still, an agonizingly slow economic recovery was further hampered by a highly partisan and acrimonious Congress, split along party and ideological lines. The rancor eventually led to a government shutdown in 2013.

This federal enmity and stagnation festered on the state level, as well. Katz and Bradley (2013) observed, “The federal government and the states are legacy institutions: hyper political and partisan, hopelessly fragmented and compartmentalized, frustratingly bureaucratic and prescriptive” (p. 7). This is in stark contrast to cities and metropolitan areas, which have supplanted the federal and state governments in solving problems, taking the lead role in social planning in what Katz and Bradley call the “Metropolitan Revolution.” This is an important shift in the locus of social planning. Nonetheless, social planners now face the dubious task of devoting scarcer resources to increasingly complex and systemic social problems.

The Foundations of Social Planning

Social planning is rooted in the philosophy of logical positivism. Positivism assumes social phenomena, which, like physical phenomena, exist in a scientifically ordered world that functions according to knowable and discernable laws. This approach to social planning is currently known as comprehensive rational planning. This is not to be confused with comprehensive social planning, which pertains to large-scale, national-level planning, such as social security. Comprehensive rational planning assumes that social problems can be defined and the root causes identified. Complete information can be gathered, and the resulting plans are based on facts, data, and logical calculations. Moreover, such rationality is universal—all plans and decisions can be completely informed, factual, and logical regardless of culture, context, or individual differences (Morcol, 2007). Few social planners believe that these assumptions are true, but they can serve as reasonable approximations. Therefore, the aggregation of rational choices, somewhat like a mean or central tendency of rational choices, can result in a collective rationality.

Herbert Simon (1955) convincingly reasoned that human rationality was bounded by the limits of human intelligence, psychosocial experience, socialization, language, culture, and context. Hence, planners in practice typically satisficed, choosing an acceptable alternative rather than optimizing and choosing the best possible alternative.

An alternative to comprehensive rational planning was Charles Lindblom's (1959) incrementalism or disjointed incrementalism, sometimes referred to as the “science of muddling through.” Lindblom contended that rational planning could only occur under the most ideal conditions. In contrast, incrementalism eschewed the pretense of an underlying order and pure objectivity. Instead, social planners focused on concrete problems and actual conditions, typically localized. By having success and failure in specific situations, social planners could identify what worked under specific circumstances, and discard programs, services, and approaches that performed poorly. By making adjustments, these small incremental improvements would theoretically culminate in better and better solutions.

Roles and Functions of Social Planners

Social planners enact various roles and engage in various functions. They plan, identify key issues, set priorities, and advocate for certain social policies. They conduct research and gather data about human needs and resources. They serve as a resource, providing technical assistance for planning, developing, and improving programs and services. Planners advise public, private, federal, state, and local agencies. They develop new resources and seek new sources of funding. They organize people and agencies and mobilize resources to improve services and interagency cooperation.

Such activities are often perceived to have more in common with other professions (for example, city or public health planners) than with social workers, for whom process and direct practice are perceived to be incongruent with technocratic orientations. Gilbert and Specht (1977) observed that besides contrasting activities, there are discrepant views concerning the central purpose of social planning. The first, integration and capacity-building objectives, is consistent with the process and direct practice orientation, while the other, program development and social reform objectives, is supported by technical and analytical scrutiny. Rothman (2008) helps clarify and reconcile these apparent discrepancies by explaining the mixing and phasing of models of community intervention. While one may be able to find distinct instances of prototypical social planning, they are just as likely to find mixed models. For example, the Children's Defense Fund combines social action and planning by vigorous advocacy and the effective use of research data. Hardina (2002) emphasizes the analytical skills for the macro-level social worker, which include technical as well as political considerations. Effective social planning requires a flexible and multiskilled practitioner.

Criticisms and Limits of Social Planning

Criticisms of prototypical social planning are that it assumes a unified view of the public interest and a consensus on goals or means to solve problems. Davidoff (1965) points out that such planning is typically top-down and unitary, meaning only one agency in a community is responsible for comprehensive planning. Davidoff advocates pluralistic planning by involving other community agencies and citizens. He further notes that social planning is not devoid of values and that these should be clear to the planners as well as citizens. In pluralistic planning, advocacy is practiced by professional planners on behalf of clients and communities, compelling planners to deal with political considerations.

Another criticism involves the methodology of social planning. Collecting and analyzing data consumes time and resources. Using data to reflect a social problem requires a frame of reference, and planners may view the same data and come to divergent conclusions about the data as well as the situation. Moreover, having a plan does not necessarily mean it will be implemented.

Social planning is decontextualized. It takes place within contexts, such as public management networks. As these networks share information, build capacity, develop strategies, formulate policy, and modify programs, social planning becomes less straightforward and more politicized. The “Garbage Can Model of Decision Making,” described by March and Olsen (1976), points out how decisions are influenced by a variety of stakeholders and interest groups (for example, neighborhood councils, community groups, business associations, other agencies from various government entities), whose input arrives at different times, affecting saliency, and profoundly impacting decisions. These nontechnical factors preclude rationality in the planning process.

Moreover, Rittel and Webber (1973) point out that social planning typically addresses “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are ill-defined, unique, intractable, and never solved, and resolutions repeatedly emanate from furtive political reasoning. Furthermore, wicked problems are usually symptoms of other problems and confounded by the systemic nature of society, its complexity, and increasing pluralism.

Methods of Social Planners

The fundamental methods of social planning are rational and data-related. Among the numerous approaches to rational problem-solving, all basically begin with identifying the issue or problem, setting priorities, analyzing the problem or situation, setting objectives, developing alternatives to achieve the objectives, anticipating obstacles and adverse consequences associated with alternatives, and choosing the best alternatives to achieve the optimum solution.

As part of this rational problem-solving process, social planners employ need assessments, systems analyses, linear programming, integer programming, evaluation, experiments, and quasi-experimental designs, queuing theory, Markov chains, simulations, gaming theory, Monte Carlo techniques, cost-benefit analyses, Delphi and Nominal Group techniques, Q methodology, P sets, repertory grids, and panoplies of statistical applications (see Morcol, 2007).

Participation and Social Planning

Participatory planning is an important value of social work and requires a “strong commitment to plan with rather than for people in communities” (Weil, 2005, p. 219). However, social planning typically originates from bureaucracies with formal rules, chains of command, professional cadres, and a penchant for efficiency. Chaskin (2005) documents the inherent tension in bringing together bureaucratic sponsoring organizations such as foundations and formal service agencies, on the one hand, and citizens and voluntary groups, on the other. Nevertheless, the advantages of incorporating participation in the social planning process include a deeper and often different understanding of the nature of a community or target population, as well as their definition and framing of the problem and views concerning solutions. Sager (2008) identifies key facets of participation in the planning process, such as levels of participation and the favorable and unfavorable conditions for effective participation.

Current Trends in Social Planning

One of the interesting trends in contemporary social planning is geographic information systems (GIS). GIS has emerged as a widespread approach for managing information and for storing and interpreting data. According to the department of the interior, 97% of local governments with populations greater than 100,000 and 88% of those with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 use GIS (Haque, 2007). It is so important that the federal government has created the National Spatial Data Infrastructure, coordinated by and the interagency Federal Geographic Information Committee, to promote, advance and coordinate the development, utilization, sharing and dissemination geographic information and related geospatial data.

The application of GIS technology permits digital mapping and multidimensional graphs of social, political, economic, and physical phenomena. For example, GIS maps can reveal shifting demographics, growth trends, socioeconomic status, crime rates, and susceptibility to earthquakes, floods, fires, environmental hazards, pollution, harmful landfills, and transportation availability in relation to job opportunities and so on. With GIS social planners can study racial, ethnic, and economic factors in a specific area, or study the proximity of crime, drug use, HIV clients, and employment opportunities in a particular city, state, region, country, continent, or any part of the world (Haque, 2007).

GIS spatial mapping helps the planner improve social service delivery systems, evaluate programs, locate service areas, and organize service delivery. GIS is typically used in target-based intervention planning, such as identifying the most deficient neighborhoods of school children by age and nutrition.

Because so many governmental and social service agencies rely on GIS, practitioners have developed collaborative practices and actively seek community involvement. A new methodology known as public participation geographic information systems (PPGIS) has been used to allow local community members to participate in decisions that affect them. Such involvement may involve the scale of analysis, identification of needs, access to information, and influencing how the GIS information is compiled, presented, and used (Haque, 2007).

Spatial mismatch is an area of social planning that tends to focus on the segregation of racial, ethnic, sexual, age, occupational, and poverty sectors or segments that emerge from a lack of opportunities in urban areas due to the spatial distribution of people (Poon, Button, & Nijkamp 2006). The spatial distribution of various groups (for example, racial, ethnic, elderly) affects economic opportunities through spatial mobility, as well as through social relationships in social networks.

Sustainable development (SD) is another advance in social planning. Sustainable development involves the recognition that social conditions affect the ecological and socioeconomic sustainability of urban areas, communities, and regions. In SD, social planners attempt to address issues such as the desirability of urban sprawl in contrast to compact cities or the benefits of economic growth versus the costs of environmental degradation. Other areas of interest in SD involve poverty, international trade, agriculture, and so forth. In practice, there is little consensus about what SD means; the strategies to achieve SD are often contradictory, and the impact appears to serve political expediency rather than producing thoughtful, rigorous interventions (Lele, 2006).

The social organization approach attempts to examine regional and urban concerns that constrain or support social opportunities (Poon et al., 2006). Here, the focus is on how social and human capital shape urban social infrastructure. As regions and cities become more complex, social planning needs to become more inclusive of diverse social groupings; it also needs to expand the social categories by which a society is understood and programs and services planned.

Implications for Social Work

With the growing interest in GIS, spatial mismatch, and other advances in social planning technologies, the need for social workers who engage in social planning has become increasingly important. However, the number of social workers engaged in all phases of social service administration is declining drastically (Wuenschel, 2006). Without social workers, the current resurgence of social planning is dominated by individuals from disciplines that may or may not share social work values.

Organizations such as the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (http://www.acosa.org) and Planners Network (http://www.plannersnetwork.org) are promoting the participatory and political dimensions of planning as part of social work and urban planning respectively.


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                                    Further Reading

                                    American Planning Association: http://www.planning.org/

                                    Association of Collegiate School of Planning: http://www.acsp.org/

                                    Cambell, S., & Fainstein, S. S. (Eds.) (2003). Readings in planning theory (2d. Ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.Find this resource:

                                      Cyburbia Forums: http://www.cyburbia.org/

                                      Friedman, J. (2011). Insurgencies: Essays in planning theory. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                        Innes, J. E., & Booher, D. E. (2010). Planning with Complexity: An introduction to Collaborative Rationality for Public Policy. New York, NY: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                          Katz, B., & Bradley, J. (2013). The metropolitan Revolution. How cities and metros are fixing our broken politics and fragile economy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.Find this resource:

                                            Mandelbaum, S. J., Mazza, L., & Burchell, R. W. (Eds.) (1996). Explorations in planning theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.Find this resource:

                                              Morcol, G. (Ed.) (2007). Handbook of Decision Making. New York, NY: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group.Find this resource:

                                                National Association of Planning Councils: http://www.communityplanning.org

                                                Planners Network: http://www.plannersnetwork.org/

                                                Poon, J. P. H., Button, K., & Nijkamp, P. (Eds.) (2006). Social Planning. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.Find this resource:

                                                  Rothman, J. L Erlich, & J. E. Tropman (Eds.) (2008). Strategies of community intervention (7th. Ed.). Peosta, IA: Eddie Bowers.Find this resource:

                                                    Urban Planning Research: http://planningresearch.blogspot.com/

                                                    Wegener, M., Button, K., & Nijkamp, P. (Eds.) (2007). Planning history and methodology. Northampton, MA: Elgar Reference Collection.Find this resource: