The Politics of the Dusty Plan (1986)

By Sohail Inayatullah

Futures Research Quarterly (Vol. 20, No. 4, 1986), 63-68



Planning for the future in government or in business has never been a gratifying task. Planners are constantly frustrated in realizing their goals. Among other complaints, perhaps the most debilitating frustration is that plans are written and then simply discarded to lie on a shelf and gather dust. While the obvious reasons may be that the plan was poorly done, was too long, was weak in quantitative analysis, or was overly quantitative, the real reasons may in fact be the power relationships between the planner and the Chief Executive Officer and differences in how the plan and the planning process are perceived by the planner and the CEO.

Arnold Brown has argued in his article appropriately titled, “Everywhere Planners are in Pain.1” that the single most important determinate of a successful planning endeavor is not budget, method, or equipment but the relationship between the planner and the CEO. In the planning cycle, difficulties arise in the organizational relationship between the CEO and the planner, that is, there exists a difference in views between the planner’s perception and the CEO’s hope. Brown argues that there must be better lines of communication between the planner and the CEO.


For Brown, the planner can reduce his pain by remembering that: “the planner’s role is to provide the means whereby the CEO can plan effectively,” that is, the planner as translator.2   To achieve this translation, most articles in the planning and futures literature present technical strategies: that is, they argue for the integration of the left and right brain, the use of common sense intuitive forecasts and strategies; for increased information through modeling or novel methodologies such as Delphi or Emerging Issues Analysis3.   While these may help the planner in writing a better plan–as judged the elegance of the plan itself–these methods have very little to do with the politics of planning, the implementation of the plan or the orga­nizational self-awareness that can emerge from a participatory planning process. It is often the case that “the Boss loved the plan, but nothing came out of it.” Planners remain unaware that the objectives of their plan may be ultimately different from that of the CEO or the organization itself.

However differences in objectives between planners and the CEO is not necessarily an idiosyncratic problem that planners have; rather, it is part of the politics of the planning process, part of the structure of organizations. It is this process that I wish to discuss and elabo­rate. Concretely, I wish to discuss the politics of the “dusty” plan.

For the planner, the plan is an expression of his or her vision. Although it includes ideas and suggestions of line personnel as well as top management, it is still the planner’s work. The planner hopes that through the plan his relationship will change from researcher (techni­cian) or implementer to advisor or co-decision-maker. Walter Blass has developed similar categories that describe this relationship. He talks of “planner as frustrated mechanic” and “planner as ever the bridesmaid,” and finally “planner as meddler or would be king.”

However, just as intellectuals and priests took away power from the monarchy, top executives fear planners will take away their power. And justifiably so. The planner certainly understands the organization at an operational and philosophical level. The planner also through the plan writing process learns about the organization’s history. Through this historical understanding, the planner is equipped to develop the orga­nization’s alternative futures. Writing of the plan gives power. In industrial culture, the written word is power. Words and language not only define the world, they create the world and given ownership of this creation to the writer. The planner thus can create history and future. This emphasis of the written word is especially true for planners trained in law.

Blass writes that “proximity to the seat of power must be handled with humility and reserve.4” However, even if this is done, the poli­tics of institutional and organizational relationships will force the CEO to make it clear that he is the planner, and the planner simply an articulator of his ideas. This is not an easy real-politik lesson to acknowledge. Nor is the realization that the best ways to see one’s ideas furthered is to gently include them in conversation such that the CEO thinks that they are his for such an act acknowledges the vertical structure of organizational power and the planners lowly place in this structure.


Beyond organizational power relationships, often the real purpose of the plan as perceived by the CEO and the planner may be quite differ­ent. The plan is a symbolic document. This is especially so in govern­mental agencies. The CEO may simply want to have a document to show a particular body–the state legislature, or a Federal funding agency, such as the LEAA in the criminal justice field, or even to stockholders in the private sector–that the institution has entered the world of modern management. A plan is symbolic of the effective use of resources. It is a way of saying, “yes we are doing something about x problem.” Agencies use plans to diffuse criticism: that is, “we are working on it.” Even in the private sector, where there is a clear motive for operations – profit – and a clear result if targets are not met (loss of market share) similar problems exist. Lack of relevance to immediate business problems is an excuse often used for a shelved plan. However, the intention of the plan from the view of the CEO may have been simply to impress the board of directors that modernity had been achieved. In both sectors, plans and planning are used to obscure deeper organizational problems.


Thus for the organization, the plan itself, not its content, and especially not its implementation, is what is important. The planner, however, often sees the plan as an expression of his vision of the institution’s future, the plan becomes an extension of him or herself.   From the planner’s perspective, the plan is a vehicle of change, or organizational revitalization. For the CEO, it may be simply an ex­pression of prestige. Thus, when the plan is put on the shelf the planner is dismayed and enters “post-plan depression” . The CEO, of course, proudly displays the plan on his shelf. Where else should it go? His goal has been accomplished. Praise has been lavished. Funds received. Criticism diffused. The knighthood of modern management bestowed.

The CEO already has a way to do business, to make decisions, to understand the future. He already has a worldview, a set of priorities, and although he asked for the plan in the first place, it is certainly not because he wants his world restructured, reorganized or reprior­itized. He may simply want to decrease the uncertainty of the external socio-economic environment as well as manage various difficult to control internal programs and individuals.

Plans are symbolic. They evoke the future. They accomplish political motives. The Hawaii Judiciary, for example, has developed a reputation for excellence in planning largely due to its innovative comprehensive planning documents. However, while these are used by court planners all over the USA, the Hawaii Judiciary still has not implemented its plans, nor has it adopted a strategic plan. They purpose of the planning process, was, in retrospect, simple to further unify and centralize the courts and to justify future judicial growth.

Plans are also used within organizations by programs to increase their power or to articulate their vision. However, this too can be problematic. A plan developed for a local YMCA, although accurate, elegant and practical turned out to be useless. Since the Central YMCA was not interested in examining a plan from a lower level branch, it could not be operationalized at the local level, nor was the larger purpose of convincing the Central YMCA–that the YMCA’s market share and prestige as a premiere national and international volunteer association would continue to decline–realized. Thus, another dusty plan was added to the garbage heap of unused plans. Other experiences by colleagues in various state agencies have followed the same pattern. To gain Federal funding or assuage Legislative auditors a plan is written. Once writ­ten, it is shelved.


However, a plan gathering dust does not mean that the plan failed, or that the planning process is worthless. Mere gesturing. Simply planners must see their work in the overall institutional, organization­al sense. Of course, occasionally, ideas and recommendations are followed through and implemented. But, even here, the language of implementation rarely acknowledges the source of the ideas, nor does it follow the logic of the plan. The planner does not become bride or chief advisor, he or she remains the frustrated technician.

For the planner to avoid post plan depression, he should understand the politics of the planning process, that is the motives of the orga­nization and the CEO and the respective role at the face and symbolic level of the key actors. However, to confront the CEO and argue that he or she simply wants the plan for symbolic reasons will not produce the desired results for the planner. The CEO will simply argue – and will believe it – that the plan is being written to be implemented. However, his definition of what constitutes implementation may differ from the planner’s. For the CEO, it is he who solves problems, the planner simply points to future problems to solve.


To begin with, the planner must also see the writing of the plan and the political consensus building necessary for a plan to gain acceptance, as a process of organizational self-learning. The purpose of the plan, then becomes a vehicle for individuals to discover their role–or lack thereof–in the organization; for CEO’s to discern what really is going on in the organization. This process, however, often uncovers the organization’s dark side–the desire for empire building among lower level bureaucrats and the desire for organizational growth even when public–citizens and consumers–demand does not warrant such growth. Thus CEO’s, aware of the chaos and change that might occur when an organization is aware of its dark side, usually attempt to tightly control the planning process by only defining the goal of the planner as the production of a written plan or in a some similar technical and apolitical fashion.

Is there then a way out? Given the politics of organizations and their vertical power structures and the desire of humans to control others, to use plans and planning to expand the power and worldview of their own egos, probably not. The best the planner can do is understand the politics of who wants what and why on the conscious personal level and the unconscious institutional level. He could also simply leave the planner role, start his own business or government, and become King. Then he would have free reign to impose his or her vision or as the case often is, ego.

However, if living in the world of power, wealth, and ego is the central problem, then the planner in the fashion of the urban guerrilla can attempt to redesign the organization by creating more horizontal participatory structures. He or she could also, knowing that real people are suffering in bureaucracies or “in hell holes known as insti­tutions,”5 as in the case of the criminal justice or mental health system, become not a writer of plans but a political actor–a social activist or lobbyist. The planner then must redefine his or her role, organize and then convince decision-makers through information, confron­tation, debate, and compromise of his or her perspective hoping that the planning process will force organizational and individual self-awareness.

If this is not enough or too much, then the planner should work at political and spiritual transformation on a global and individual levels hitherto unheard of in human history. In the mean time, the planner can write the plan, and then, as he receives praise from top management and as the plan is shelved, he can in a yogic zen-like fashion watch the dust gather and smile. If none of these alternatives suffice then it may be wise to switch professions. However patho-bureaucracies and egos in search of power appear to be the rule in this world, not the excep­tion.



*        Sohail Inayatullah is senior policy analyst/futurist at the Office of the Administrative Director, the Hawaii Judiciary, PO Box 2560, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822. He also is planning consultant to Mid-Pacific Institute, a private school in Hawaii. The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily shared by any organizations that the author is affiliated with.

  1. Arnold Brown, “Everywhere Planners are in Pain,” Long Range Planning, (Vol. 16, No. 3, 1983), p. 18-21.
  1. ibid. p. 19.
  1. See Geoffrey Fletcher, “Key Concepts in the Futures Perspective” World Future Society Bulletin (January-February, 1979), pp. 25-31.
  1. Walter Blass, “Ten Years of Business Planners,” Long Range Planning, (Vol. 16. No. 3, 1983), p. 21-24.
  1. Wayne Yasutomi, Development Disabilities planner. Personal communications sent to the author.