Social Planning

Most Western countries have a high degree of industrialization and modernization which results in a lot of prosperity. This prosperity, in turn, results in a society in which all citizens can be seen as ‘not poor’. This trivial fact is not something which can be seen as a miracle or a natural phenomenon, but as a result of planning. In turn, the society as a whole must be organized in such a way that guarantees can be given to its citizens for their individual well-being. This egalitarian principle in Western countries is conceptualized in the term ‘welfare state’. It is not the intention of this article to provide a historical account of the emergence of the welfare state, but the main goal is to discuss an important catalytic factor in the emergence of the welfare state: social planning.

Social planning is not synonymous to governmental planning because it is a broad term which is relevant for numerous kinds of planning. Almost every form of planning, whether it is education planning, health planning, business planning or science planning, all have clear and definite social characteristics. For this reason, a social planner can have different academic backgrounds: sociologist, economist, business administration, public administration, etc.

What is social planning? Planning can be seen as a process in which a definite number of steps in time are undertaken which will result in a strategy necessary to cope with a certain problem. Take, for instance, a housewife who wants to cook her family a nice dinner. She will first decide what sort of meal she will prepare. She will make a list of the necessary ingredients and she will go to the nearest supermarket and buy these ingredients. Back home she will cook the meal which will be ready around dinner time. Her family can enjoy a warm home cooked meal made with fresh ingredients. This is all the result of planning albeit a simple form of planning.

Unfortunately, the social reality in which we live in is a lot more complex and confusing. So, to solve all those complex problems, the planner has developed numerous techniques and methods of planning. In general, all planners tend to agree that there are two kinds of planning. The first type of planning is called substantial planning. This form of planning is connected with highly specialized planning in a certain sector or area. For instance education planning, spatial planning, business planning, etc. are forms of substantial planning. The second type of planning is procedural planning. This type of planning is concerned with general characteristics of the planning process. The central question of this form of planning is: how can I shape a planning process? This article is about the latter form of planning rather than a specialized method of application of planning. A logical consequence of procedural planning is that planning must be seen as a process. And this process is a process of analysis, anticipation, design, action, and application.

Planning as a ‘learning process’

Planning is not an activity which can be seen as a process which is uncontroversial. The science of planning is still growing and the concept of planning is numerous. Every planner has his own way of looking at planning and this has resulted in a ‘jungle’ of planning definitions and concepts. Fortunately, this fact has given a strong impulse to the growth of the science of planning. In the beginning, planning was solely a technical and industrial engagement. But recently planners realized that planning should be seen as a social activity. For this reason, sociologists developed a strong interest in the systematic analysis of planning. A significant consequence of this approach of planning is that the learning aspects of planning have been recognized. So, the concept of planning as a ‘learning process’ can be seen as the most recent approach of planning. This form of planning has integrated certain aspects from the system theories, cybernetics, and the communication and social theories.

A major characteristic of the system theories is that the social reality is seen as a system which consists of subsystems. If we know that the reality consists of subsystems, then it is possible to make models. Models actually mirror the reality which consists of subsystems. Take, for instance, a mouse who is trying to escape from the claws of a cat. The mouse itself has a dynamic system; it is possible for the mouse to constantly change its system. In order to escape from the cat, the mouse can run into various directions which, in turn, depend on its sight, smell, and hearing capacities. So, the mouse possesses a dynamic system. For planning, however, a dynamic system is not enough because the social reality is also changing constantly. The consequence of the changing social reality is that our analysis of the situation is easily outdated and irrelevant.

There are two strategies to cope with this problem: using forecasting techniques which can be incorporated in the planning process and/or the incorporation of feedback mechanisms in the planning process. The latter strategy is actually an aspect which has been derived from cybernetics. So, it can be stated that planning is a learning process since new ideas, changes in the reality, and experience are all incorporated in the planning system by feed-back mechanisms. It is actually information (the learning aspects of planning) which is incorporated in the planning process; without information we cannot function properly.

There is one final aspect which must be incorporated in the planning system: participation. It is actually an aspect of the communication and social theories. Planning is usually not an individualistic activity, especially when the problem to be solved is complex and when a lot of people are involved. So, participation of others in the planning process is very important since it is essential to make a good and successful plan rather than an unrealistic plan.

Planning as a decision-making process

In most cases, planning is highly related to decision making. Decisions are constantly being made in reality without any difficulties at all. Decisions can be made by simple intuitions, but it can also be made by a deeper analysis of a problem. An example of an intuitive decision: which hand do I use writing a paper or what is the best position for me to get into sleep in bed at night, etc. This kind of decision making happens automatically; there is no need for a deeper analysis. The planner, however, is not a person who believes that all his problems can be solved with intuitions. If this is the case, a dangerous situation might arise for the planner himself or for the people who are affected by his plans. A sensible social planner realizes that the social reality is a complex reality. For this reason, the social planner will base his plans on rational analysis. It must be mentioned that a social planner is also a human being who is not perfect.

Planning is about decision making. In turn, decision making is based on analysis; this means that a certain part of the reality must be subdivided into a certain number of parts. These parts can be analyzed which means that all the consequences of all the problem-solving alternatives must be screened. However, it is impossible to make a complete analysis of the entire reality which is too complex in nature.

Usually, there is not enough time, money, and intellectual capabilities to solve a social problem in a total manner. This does not mean that that an incomplete analysis is useless because it will clarify the problem a lot more and there is no doubt about the usefulness of an incomplete analysis. In order to clarify this, an illustration can be given. Imagine there are two alternative plans available and it is absolutely necessary that one option is chosen. In addition, it is known that the results of plan A are less satisfying than the results of plan B. The chances that plan B will succeed is only 40%. But it is also known that in case plan B is successful, then the results at the end is much better than the results of plan A. Which plan do you have to choose? The following calculations will provide more clarity. Suppose the success of plan B will be given the value of 1 and the failure of plan A will be given the value 0. In case plan A succeeds, a value of 0.7 can be given, but if plan B fails, a value of 0.2 can be given. The expected value for choosing plan A can now be calculated:

(0.8 x 0.7) + (0.2 x 0.0) = 0.56

For choosing plan B, the calculation is:

(0.4 x 1.0) + (0.6 x 0.2) + 0.52

So, in this case plan A should be the obvious choice.

Planning, forecasting, and policy making

It was already mentioned that the process of planning includes anticipation. This process of anticipation or forecasting is actually the process of predicting the future. Planning and forecasting cannot be separated from each other, but cannot be separated from the process of policy making. The process of policy making can be defined as the search for certain means in order to reach an acceptable goal in the future. In other words, problems we have today must be eliminated in the future and it is our task to find means to achieve this goal. Planning in this case must be seen as a supporting factor of policy making consisting of the following processes: preparation, consideration, decision, execution, evaluation, and feedback. The relationship between planning, forecasting, and policy making is useful because governments, politicians and policy makers need all these instruments.