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Article Summary

Sager, Tore (2009). Planners' Role: Torn between Dialogical Ideals and Neo-liberal Realities. European Planning Studies, 17 (1): 65-84. 


In his article Planners’ Role: Torn between Dialogical Ideals and Neo-liberal Realities, Tore Sager argues that in neo-liberal societies planners are caught between divergent values of Communicative Planning Theory (CPT) and New Public Management (NPM). While the principles of CPT have informed the values and attitudes of many planners, NPM has transformed the public sector economically and politically.

The Role of the Planner

Influenced by public choice theory, the role of the planner has changed from implementing bureaucratic, public solutions to designing efficient market institutions. In CPT, the planner acts as facilitator and mediator and strives to involve all stakeholders especially marginalized groups to promote consensus building. NPM views the planner as technical-economic expert. Planners confront tensions in their practice straddling these two spectrums. Sager believes that neo-liberal, NPM ideology threatens the planning values of democracy, responsibility, solidarity, autonomy, and respect by measuring outcomes in monetary terms and privileging efficiency.

Values of Communicative Planning

Communicative planning is a collective, open, and participatory practice involving all affected stakeholders and marginalized groups in a dialogue informed by the principles of discourse ethics. Communicative planning expands egalitarian values by seeking fair solutions and developments through consensus building processes and the empowerment of weaker groups. Sager describes that communicative planning strives to achieve, “socially oriented and fairness-seeking developments of land, infrastructure, or public services”(67). Socially oriented developments support the interests of all stakeholders not just the powerful. Fairness-seeking developments improve the living conditions of marginalized groups and respect the rights of all members of society. The role of the planner in this process includes facilitating collaboration among the various groups and stakeholders through conflict mediation, exposing invisible power dynamics, and raising questions that are normally avoided in public discourse. Values of CPT include responsiveness to all members of society, freedom of speech, equal opportunities for communicative action, justice, and bureaucratic neutrality. The process of collective dialogue is a goal itself not just the subsequent substantive plan.

Core Features of New Public Management

NPM is the neo-liberal influence on the organization of government guided by the principles of market, competitiveness, and accountability. Sager identifies three trends that characterize this shift—entrepreneurialism, depoliticization, and agencification. Entrepreneurialism describes the shift in focus from public service delivery and facilities to stimulating private development and job growth. The private-public partnership is one popular form of entrepreneurialism. Depoliticitization is the erosion of democracy where politics are removed from the decision-making process. Agencification is the separation of cohesive administrative structures into fragmented single purpose agencies. NPM is a neoliberal model of governance that propagates the belief that market and business mechanisms can operate more efficiently and effectively in securing the public interest than public sector solutions. In order to enhance efficiency, managers must have autonomy and freedom of choice to find market solutions that enhance efficiency. NPM focuses on enhancing efficiency through budget discipline, performance measurements (benchmarking), competition, and improvement systems that are consumer focused; “The ideas is that market should discipline politics, which is contrary to the traditional view that politics should discipline the market” (70).

Similarities and Differences Between CPT and NPM


Finding common ground between these two disparate styles may help ease tensions confronted by planners. Both CPT and NPM stress the importance of user satisfaction and responsiveness. CPT takes into account all groups and stakeholders and considers the user to be the citizen, whereas NPM focuses only on serving consumer. Citizens have voice as bearer of rights within the community. Costumers have voice through willingness to pay. Focusing on the interests of the consumer, NPM is ignores inequality and can reinforce social exclusion. In NPM, public participation is utilized to improve accountability and public sector performance. In order to make decisions about preferred goods and services, the public needs information to make informed decisions. This type of consumer accountability differs from the fundamental principle of CPT that incorporates all groups and stakeholders in the planning process. Both CPT and NPM attempt to prevent abuse of power through accountability. Planners and managers are accountable not only to the organizational hierarchies of their agencies, but must be responsive to the general public as well. In NPM, responsiveness is measured through customer satisfaction. Responsiveness itself is a goal of CPT. Sager questions whether or not planners can sincerely promote participation and dialogue when working for agencies whose political principles are driven by NPM ideology.  Both CPT and NPM support flexible local planning decisions. NPM encourages flexible local planning decisions in order give managers more freedom to negotiate with developers without the burden of general regulations. CPT strives to incorporate all local interest and incorporate local knowledge in the planning process. Sager addresses two critiques of CPT. Imrie (1999) argues that because of shared values like forging partnerships CPT actually legitimizes the NPM approach. Bengs (2005a, 2005b) critiques both NPM and CPT for the decentralization of decision-making that led to the deregulation of real estate markets.

Planner Values and Attitudes

Examining empirical research of attitudes and planners in several countries, Sager finds that the values and attitudes of planners in Norway correspond most with the values of CPT. The empirical research suggests that open planning processes raise accountability problems. Planners face the challenging task of acting according to their own personal values, showing loyalty to their agencies, and also empowering the general public to participate in the process. Sager finds that US planners encourage public participation but also support private market solutions.

New Public Service

New Public Service is an alternative to NPM that embraces public participation and collective decision-making. The planner acts as facilitator to help citizens voice their values and build relationships of trust and respect. The New Public Service incorporates involvement of all stakeholders, dialogue, and democratic accountability into the planning process. Sager argues that New Public Service can help ease the tensions created by the differences between CPT and NPM.