Planning Theory

Rational Planning Model

Evolution of different planning models

Different authors and scholars coined different planning theories which evolved over time. Different theories were an attempt to refine the planning process so as to produce better plans. With more and more people working some of the well-known planning concepts like rational planning model, advocacy planning concept, collaborative planning theory, political economic model in urban planning, critical minimum efforts theory emerged. Among these Rational Planning Model is considered to be most successful and even used today.

A brief history of Rational Planning Model

The rational planning model is the process of understanding a problem followed by establishing and evaluating planning criteria, formulation of alternatives and implementing them and finally monitoring  the progress of the chosen alternatives. The rational planning model is central in the development of transport planing & modern planning. Similarly, rational decision-making model is a process of making decisions which are logically sound. This multi-step model and aims to be logical and follow the orderly path from problem identification through solution.

Rational Planning Model
Rational Planning Model

The RCM (Rational Comprehensive Model) for planning owes its origins to Enlightenment epistemology (Sandercock, 1998; Allmendinger, 2002), as it is centred on decisions and principles that are based on reason, logic and scientific facts with little or no emphasis on values and emotions. Due to its tendency towards scientific method and its decision-making process, Faludi has termed it ‘procedural planning theory’. He sees planning as a procedure and declares that “the planning theorist depends on first-hand experience, reflects upon it, and puts it into context” (Faludi, 1978:179). Therefore, the planner learns from experience and can define the correct method or procedure to follow to get the correct result. Meanwhile Sandercock (1998) refers to the rational comprehensive model as ‘technocratic planning’ due to its emphasis on technical expertise and skills and its steadfast belief that technology and social science can be used to solve our problems.

Related: Advocacy Planning Concept

Types of Rationality in Planning:

Influenced by Max Weber, Allexander (1986) distinguishes between two types of rationality in planning; ‘formal rationality’ and ‘substantive rationality’. Formal rationality “involves separating means from ‘given’ ends and systematically identifying, evaluating, and choosing means in a technical and apolitical way” (Allmendinger, 2002:182; and Reade in Breheny and Hooper, 1985). It focuses on the means rather than the ends, favours facts over values, and is often used in bureaucracies. A major problem with formal rationality is that it cannot show us what goals we ought to prefer. In using the example of robbing a bank, Faludi (1978) proposes that there is a rational way to robbing a bank but the goal itself is wrong. Rationality is thus contextual. Substantive rationality is more concerned with ends and their evaluation rather than the means themselves (Allmendinger, 2002). It is less scientific than formal rationality and it considers more than simply efficiency and effectiveness. It involves values which are not based on ‘blind faith’ but are built up from the experience and the information available to the decision-maker.

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Terms used in Rational Planning Model

  • Goals – Goals are broad statements that we intend to achieve. They are quite general and abstract.
  • Objectives – Objectives are more specific, measurable and clear as they help to progress towards the goals. They are the means to actually fulfil the goals.
  • Targets – they are further specific and specify the time against which the actions need to be completed.
  • Data – Data is raw, unorganized facts that need to be processed.
  • Information – When data is processed, organized, structured or presented in a given context so as to make it useful, it is called Information.
  • Model – A model is simply a schematic but precise description of the system using assumptions, which appears to fit its past behaviour and which can, therefore, be used, it is hoped, to predict the future
  • Projections – Projections are usually carried out based on a number of alternative assumptions based on trends of growth and other linked factors like future policy of the government, attitude of people etc. They refer to the probable value of data in future.
  • Estimate – Estimate refers to the past date. For example, suppose we wish to have population of India for 2009 today, which is not available, so we have to estimate it based on some previous available data of other years.
  • Forecast – Forecast has an element of prediction into the near future using current data and sophisticated instruments. For instance, forecasting the weather in the next 24 hours.

Stages of Rational Planning Model


Related: Collaborative Planning Theory

Criticism of Rational Planning Model

Critique of the Rational Comprehensive Planning Model: The RCM of planning has been the subject of numerous criticisms. Michael Thomas (1982:14, in Paris, 1982) criticised the RCM’s focus on means rather than ends and claimed that the model is “essentially ‘contentless’ in that it specifies thinking and acting procedures but does not investigate what is the content of these” (Thomas, 1982, p.14, in Paris 1982). The model is accused of being abstract “offering merely an extended definition of planning and not saying anything about how planning in practice operated or what its effects were” (Taylor 1998:96). Advocate planners argued that what was portrayed as the ‘Public interest’ in the RCM represented merely the interests of the privileged. They maintain that no common social interest exists and that the RCM neglects the interests of both the poor and nature (Campbell and Fainstein 2003).

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The comprehensiveness of the model has also come under question by such critics as Lindblom (2003 in Campbell and Fainstein 2003) and Altshuler (1965), who argue that due to limited time and resources available for making a decision and exploring all alternative options it is practically impossible to be thoroughly comprehensive (Taylor 1998; Campbell and Fainstein 2003). It also requires an exceptional level of knowledge, analysis and organisational coordination to absorb and make sense of all the relevant information; planners may end up being more confused and thus less rational (Campbell and Fainstein 2003; Taylor 1998). Forester (1999:46) argues that even if planners are “quite alone” in making a rational decision, they will still do so in anticipation of certain other people’s opinions whom “they know they must finally come to some form of agreement”, and so the decision is neither fully comprehensive or rational in this sense.

Sandercock (1998:88) points out that in this model “the planner is indisputably ‘The knower’, relying strictly on ‘his’ professional expertise and objectivity to do what is best for an undifferentiated public”. Sandercock also highlights the point that the RCM “privileges scientific and technical knowledge over an array of equally important alternatives – experiential, intuitive, local knowledges” (Sandercock 1998:5). Knowledge gained from these practical and analytical modes by definition exclude those without professional training. This knowledge is based on technical jargons and is preferred to knowledge gained through other practices such as talking, listening, seeing, contemplating, and sharing.

Adding to the above limitations, there are a lot of assumptions, requirements without which the rational decision model is a failure. Therefore, they all have to be considered. The model assumes that we have or should or can obtain adequate information, both in terms of quality, quantity and accuracy. This applies to the situation as well as the alternative technical situations. It further assumes that you have or should or can obtain substantive knowledge of the cause and effect relationships relevant to the evaluation of the alternatives. In other words, it assumes that you have a thorough knowledge of all the alternatives and the consequences of the alternatives chosen. It further assumes that you can rank the alternatives and choose the best of it. The following are the limitations for the Rational Decision Making Model:

  • requires a great deal of time
  • requires great deal of information
  • assumes rational, measurable criteria are available and agreed upon
  • assumes accurate, stable and complete knowledge of all the alternatives, preferences, goals and consequences
  • assumes a rational, reasonable, non – political world
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What makes Rational Planning Model successful?

Ration planning model is considered to be most practical and apt for the needs of the planning process. Its based on the scientific reasoning which takes into account the use of modern technology and increased data collection. The data collected helps in establishing the rationale and thus helps in making a claim. Another characteristic is the preparation of alternative and then choosing best among the alternatives. Moreover as the process completes the last step for the first time addressed the problem of rigidity. Planning processes is often criticized for being too rigid. The feedback and monitoring provides the much-needed flexibility in the whole process so that timely modifications can be made to the plan.


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