EVALUATION IN THE PLANNING PROCESS: EVALUATION TASKS


An effort to clarify the role of deliberative evaluation in the planning and policy-making process

Thorbjoern Mann

EVALUATION TASKS / SITUATIONS

The necessity for this review of evaluation practices and tools arises from the fact that evaluation tasks and judgments and related activities occur at many stages of planning projects. A focus on the most common task, the evaluation of a proposed plan or a set of plan alternatives in preparation for the last action, may hide the role and impact of many judgments along the way, where explicitly or implicitly not only different labels but also very different vocabulary, tools and principles are involved. Is it necessary to look at these differences, to ask whether there should be more of an effort of coordination and common vocabulary in the set of working agreements for a project?

This section will at least raise the question and begin to explore the different disguises of evaluation acts throughout the planning process to answers these questions.

Many plans are started as extensions of routine ‘maintenance’ activities on existing processes and systems, using established performance measures as indicators of a need for extraordinary steps to ensure the continued desirable function of the system in question. In such tasks, the selected performance criteria, their threshold values demanding action and most of the expected remedial steps and means, are part of the factual ‘current conditions’ data basis of further planning.

To what extent are these data understood as part of the planning project — either as ‘given’ aspects or as needing revision, discussion, change — when the situation is so unprecedented as to call for activities going beyond the routine maintenance concerns? Such situations are often referred to as ’problems’, which tends to trigger a very different way of talking. There are many different ‘definitions’ or views, understandings of problems, as well as different problem types. To what extent is an evaluation group’s decision to talk about the situation as a problem, a specific problem type, already an evaluative task? Even adopting a view of ‘problem’ as a perceived (by somebody!) discrepancy between an existing ‘IS’ state of affairs and a view of what that state ‘OUGHT’ to be, calling for ideas about ‘HOW’ to get from the IS to the OUGHT.

Judgments about what ‘is’ the case do call for judgments, perhaps even measurements, of current conditions: assessments of factual matters, even as those are perceived — again, by whom? — as ‘NOT-Ought’. Judgments specifying the OUGHT — ‘goals’ , ‘visions’, ‘desirable’ states of affairs — belong to the ‘deontic’ realm, much as this often is obscured by the invocation of ‘facts’ in the form authorities and of polls of percentages of populations ‘wanting’ this or that ‘OUGHT’: the ‘good’ they are after. The judgments about the ‘HOW’ — means, tools, etc. to reach those goals may look like ‘factual-instrumental’ judgments — but also getting into the deontic realm; some possible ‘means’ are decidedly NOT what we OUGHT to do, no matter how functionally effective they seem to be.

The ‘authority’ source of judgments that participants in planning will have to consider come in the form of laws and ‘regulations’. Examined as ‘givens’, they may be helpful in defining, constraining the ‘solution space’ for the development of the plan. But they often ‘don’t fit the circumstances’ of a current planning situation, and raise questions about whether to apply for a ‘variance’, an exception to a rule. Of course, any regulation is itself the outcome of an evaluation or judgment process — one that may be acknowledged but usually not thoroughly examined by the planners of a specific project. The temptation is, of course, to ‘accept’ such regulations as the critical performance objective (‘to get the permit’), conveniently forgetting that such regulations usually specify m i n i m a l performance expectations. They usually focus on meaningful concerns such as safety and conformance to setback and functional performance conventions — and neglecting or drawing attention away from other issues such as aesthetics, sustainability, environmental or mental health impact of the resulting ‘permitted’ but in many other ways quite mediocre and outright undesirable solutions.

Other guidance tools for the development of the plan — buildings, urban environments, but also general societal policy and policy implementation efforts — are the ‘programs’ (briefs’) and equivalent statements about the desired outcome. One main consideration of such statements is to describe the scope of the plan (in buildings; how many spaces, their size and functions , etc.) in relation to the constraint of the budget. In many cases, such descriptions are in turn guided by ‘standards’ and norms for similar uses, in each case moving responsibility for the evaluation judgments onto a different agency: asking for the basis of judgment of the provision of such expectations is becoming a complex task in itself.

The ‘participation’ demand for involving the eventual users, citizens, affected parties in these processes seems to take two main forms: one being general surveys — asking the participants to fill out questionnaires that try to capture expectations and preferences; the other being ‘hearings’ in connection with the presentation of in-progress ‘option decisions or final plans. Do the different methodological basis and treatment of these otherwise laudable efforts raise questions about their ultimate usefulness in nurturing the production of ‘quality’ plans?

The term ‘quality’ is a key concern of a very different approach to design and planning — on that explicitly denies the very need for ‘method’ in the form of systematic evaluation procedures. This is the key feature (from the current point of view) of the ‘Pattern Language’ by Christopher Alexander. Its promise (briefly and arguably unfairly distorting) is that using ‘patterns’ such as the design precepts for building and town planning of his book ‘A Pattern Language’ in the development of the plan will ‘guarantee’ an outcome that embodies the ‘quality without a name’ — including many of the aspects not addressed by the ‘usual’ design process and its regulation and function-centered constraints.

This move seems to be very appealing to designers (surprisingly, even more in other domains such as computer programming than in architecture) — any outcome done in the proper way with the proper patterns is thereby ‘good’ (‘has the ‘quality’ ) and does not need further evaluation. Not discussed, as far as I can see, is the fact that the evaluation issue is merely moved to the process of suggesting and ‘validating’ the patterns — in the building case, by Alexander and his associates, and assembled in the book. Is the admirable and very necessary effort to bring those missing quality issues back into the design and planning process and discussion undercut by the removal of the evaluation problem from that discussion?

The Pattern Language example should make it very clear how drastically the treatment of the evaluation question could influence the process and decision-making in the planning process.

Comments: Missing items / issues? Wrong question?

–o–

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