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Collaborative Rationality

Collaborative rationality is a more recent approach to complex and often multi jurisdictional planning problems, which its advocates see as superior to the rational model discussed earlier. Booher and Innes, two of its most prominent academic proponents, characterize its basic requirements as diversity, interdependence, and authentic dialogue.10

Diversity means that a wide range of interests and viewpoints are represented in the process or, to say it another way, as many stakeholders as possible are represented in the process. If, after the planning process has started, other stakeholders emerge, the idea is to bring them in rather than close the process.

Interdependence means that the nature of the problem is such that the stakeholders understand that a mutually satisfying solution to the problem is in their own best interest. If they think they will be better off by getting their own way than with any likely compromise, they may conclude that it makes more sense to fight hard to be the winner rather than to seek a common solution.

The term authentic dialogue means that there must be an extensive and honest sharing of information, viewpoints, interests, and values. Where meetings have a facilitator, an important task of the facilitator is to bring about as compete a sharing as possible and not to close off exchange or push the process to a predetermined outcome. That is a very different stance than one sees in some hierarchical situations where control of knowledge and perhaps the limiting of the flow of information on a need-to-know basis is a technique by which an interested party pushes the decision toward a predetermined outcome.

The underlying philosophy behind collaborative rationality is somewhat different than that behind the rational model. The advocate of collaborative rationality might well deny that there is a single best plan toward which the stakeholders should strive. Rather, he or she might assert that there is no objective reality with regard to the "best plan" and that the goal should be to come to an understanding that is acceptable to a substantial majority of the various stakeholders. He or she might take a relativistic view of knowledge, arguing that it is "socially constructed" and therefore it is often not possible to say that one position is necessarily truer than another. This is different from taking the position that "there is an objective truth out there; now let's try to come as close to it as possible." The proponent of collective rationality is likely to argue for placing relatively more weight on feelings, attitudes, and intuitions and less weight on scientific analysis than the proponent of the rational model. That may partly come from the view that knowledge is socially constructed and partly from the view that scientific analysis is often used to support or justify an already chosen position rather than to determine what position to take. Those who favor collaborative rationality tend toward a more horizontal rather than a hierarchical view of the planning process. They tend to favor extended dialogue and a great deal of cross-communication among many parties, rather than just communication between various parties and a small central group.

Collaborative planning can be a very slow process. In fact, given the need for authentic dialogue among a large number of stakeholders it cannot be rapid. Booher and Innes cite the Sacramento Area Water Forum as an example of a highly successful collaborative planning effort. For this complex, multi jurisdictional situation the planning phase took six years and produced a 400-page document that served as the basis for subsequent implementation. They assert that the results on the ground were good, and the resolution of previously unresolvable conflicts was achieved because the process ultimately produced widely accepted understandings of the problems and widespread consensus about what should be done.

The philosophical roots of collaborative rationality are numerous. Booher and Innes cite Jurgen Habermas and various members of the "Frankfurt School" who clearly lend a relativistic and anti-establishment tone to it. They also cite chaos theory, which suggests that our capacity to predict is more limited than we once believed, which gets at the very roots of the rational model—that we can pick the best option and then head toward it with some degree of confidence. An exposition of underlying philosophy is beyond our purview here, but the interested reader can pursue it in their book. For the working planner the philosophic roots may be of little interest. The question is: does collaborative rationality work as a process for addressing complex multiparty, multi-stakeholder issues? It has worked in a number of cases, and a substantial number of planners take it quite seriously.

Of the four planning models presented, the first three—the rational model, disjointed incrementalism, and the middle-range model (or mixed scanning)—clearly form a continuum. In fact, whether one views a planning effort as, say, an example of the rational model or of incrementalism may be partly a matter of scale. The decision to undertake a particular project might be made in an incremental way and then the details of doing that project (for example, using benefit-cost analysis to select which one of several possible ways to accomplish the project) might be approached using the rational model. Collaborative rationality is somewhat different in character, in part because of its different philosophical roots. But still, there are many similarities. For example, both the rational model and collaborative rationality may be time-consuming processes, and both may involve a huge amount of factual material and the examination of many different alternatives. Collaborative rationality and the incremental model espoused by Lindblom have big differences, but when Lindblom argues that every interest should have its own watchdog, this is not entirely different from the basic idea in collaborative rationality that it is important to include as many stakeholders as is feasible. The collaborative rationality position that there may not be one objectively best solution resembles an old notion expressed earlier in this book that because the public is composed of many parties with different interests, it may be difficult to define "the public interest." Different models are appropriate to different circumstances, and the thoughtful practitioner may draw from all of them as circumstances require.

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