Plan with your enemies not your friends

OK, maybe ‘enemy’ is the wrong word – just something to get a good headline. Maybe we are talking about a particular kind of opponent: opponents in ways of thinking; those who see the world from a totally different, diametrically-opposed viewpoint.

Much has been made of the extent to which the UK still has an Establishment; with key political, social and economic decisions made, and promoted, by a set of people from the same background – the same schools, the same university, essentially sharing the same ethos. Reference is made to the Westminster Bubble: the network of politicians, advisers, and media people who talk predominantly to each other. The overall effect is an echo chamber: people who echo each other’s values, beliefs and attitudes so that only the same things get heard and amplified with each conversation. This group is seen as London-focused and concerned more with the internal mechanisms within their own orbit than with any genuine concern for, or understanding of, the everyday issues facing ‘real people’. The belief is that when such issues do rear up in front of them they may claim to ‘get it’ but they certainly don’t ‘live it’. They live alongside, work with, and socialise with people like themselves. They read the same newspapers and follow each other on Twitter. They identify with each other as individuals and with their social group as a whole.

I have spent years in public service settings where the normal pattern was for management silos to appoint people who will fit best with their bit of the overall service. There are post-appointment team meetings, away-days and briefings to reinforce the message. At its worst it becomes the leader who only got told what trusted deputies thought the leader wanted to hear More usually, these teams worked to planned developments often in the form of nested planning eg a City Plan (drawn up in the context of a Regional Plan) with Directorate Plans nested within it; with team plans nested within these Directorate Plans; and Individual Development Plans and Appraisals (with key personal deliverables) framed within these. This was a very credible way to go about things except that all of the planning discussions took place between similar people talking in similar terms, using similar language, on commonly-accepted themes, along relatively set lines of development…

Such planning work has increasingly taken on an interagency aspect around collective puzzles, so-called wicked puzzles that need more than linear single-agency thinking. In its weakest form this is simply cutting-and-pasting sections across each other’s documents. In its stronger form it makes strong use of short-life, future-focused planning groups that are agile, being brought together around any line-management considerations: cross-agency, cross-structures, cross-system – enabling complicated puzzles to be explored from varying perceptions; exploring the complexities rather than homing in on simplified sets of agreed actions. This approach gives planned ways forward that are best-for-now, tentative, ambiguous but which are, in theory, highly do-able through sets of iterations and checkings. The planning is, however, still amongst friends – people who tend to see the world in similar terms, even if there is some disagreement about tactics, resources or responsibilities.

What does ‘planning with the enemy’ look like? Are there examples of situations where people with quite opposing world-views come together for some purpose that is beyond their own gain?

There are the common-cause residents’ group meetings; local protest meetings of people galvanised to oppose a joint enemy. Those that turn out for this on a wet Thursday tend to be similar in motivation, but only on limited terrain. People are prepared to sink their differences but this is far from trying to understand each other’s bigger perspectives. It is the simple alignment of some overlapping fragments of concern. All this is good democracy and I wouldn’t want to get rid of it. I have been the Man from the Council at such meetings – the one sent to act as a lightning-rod for all the frustrations and angers of the crowd. I have seen the power of people acting together in this way. I have also seen just how easily the common views splinter back into disagreements once the opposition has run its course and different interpretations resurface.

There is the model of restorative justice: the meeting of the perpetrator of a crime and the victim of that crime. It can be at the level of an individual offender, or at the national level as Truth and Reconciliation processes after what are perceived as social injustices. The intention is to get some understanding of how people have been affected by some action and the potential for some repairing of harm done. It is undertaken for the best of reasons but is about one side moving towards the values of the other (but not the victim seeing the advantages of a life of crime). It is not about a meeting of minds between law-breaker and law enforcer. That has been done as the offender was processed through the system of police and courts, which is more focused on technicalities of laws broken and punishment due – with few opportunities for any joint planning of opposing equals within that.

There is arbitration or conflict resolution, via a neutral mediator, where two or more sides can be brought closer together in an appropriate form of dialogue and negotiation. They may still disagree on fundamental issues but are willing to meet midway and cease outright hostilities – with the hope of setting the basis for the avoidance of future conflict. This is getting closer to joint planning between opponents.

There have been calls for collaboration across broad alliances through some form of rainbow coalition. At the end of the 1970s, the book ‘Beyond the Fragments’ (Sheila Rowbotham) urged those on the political left to set differences aside and build a united opposition. This was a good start but would still be a dialogue amongst friends. To go further would require authentic social planning between those on the left and those on the right; republican and democrat; traditionalist and progressive; Us and Them; friends and enemies – or any other label that thinking tries to hide behind.

There are models where an enemy has been recruited as a friend:  the ex-hacker who comes over to advise the anti-hacking team … the poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Once enemies join the friends’ camp, however, they lose the edge, the drive that comes from holding an outright opposition in mind-set.

There is the idea of the creative colony with people sparking ideas against each other, feeding into ways of thinking and ways of living that result in individual works of art. There are artists who deliberately work with people who they may consider as different, as ‘other’, maybe even as ‘enemy’- taking themselves out of their natural setting in order to challenge their creative thinking and their productive work. There are debates around the boundaries of who one should collaborate with and an increasing unwillingness to be associated with those who hold different social views or who have different politics.

There are diplomatic negotiations, which take us closer to the heart of what is being considered. Politics being the art of what is possible, such negotiations (joint-plannings) may so often be assumed to end up with lowest-common-denominator outcomes. Diplomacy, however, is predicated on a number of more productive approaches, including: appreciation of the cultures, desires, fears and interests of those being negotiated with; careful listening in order to find points of agreement rather than standing behind fixed stances, whilst holding clear positions on the issues; willingness to find new ways, to reward progress, and to encourage reaching a position of agreement for all.

There are other models but these are enough for now.

How does any of this translate into planning? Planning for what? Planning with whom?

One example struck me recently. A number of cities are pushing for the planning of integrated transport systems. One aspect of this is the provision of more and better connected cycle routes. Who is best placed to advise on this? The usual mechanism would be to ask cyclist groups to help with this aspect of the wider plan. Cyclists are a set of people who, to other like-minded people, are seen as paragons of health and environmentalism. This may be so, but (to pedestrians) cyclists can also be seen as silent speedsters of the road, upon you before you realise it; willing to edge out early at red lights or to ride on pavements if the roads are clogged with traffic. Cyclists are those who are willing to absolutely ruin my pedestrian view of architecturally-interesting buildings with the clutter of their multi-stacked, parked bicycles.

I have no objection to cyclists having a strong say in planning transport-related developments but not on their own. I would prefer it to be done in productively-challenging conversation with pedestrians, and motorists. This is not about having one token opponent-viewpoint in the room, for the sake of it. Nor is it about stand-your-ground intransigence. To get a rounded discussion, which may well need mediating, there is a need for a relatively equal balance of views.

This is the basis of democratic government: having opposition perspectives put forward, and taken account of (not dismissed out of hand because of arrogance of some party majority voting figures).

In any setting, following the logic, is it feasible for alternative views to be strongly shone on the basic puzzle so that we see the complexities in it; taking different perspectives and attitudes seriously; trying to accommodate the best of all views: not seeing things in terms of clashes of ideals, party allegiances first and foremost; not focusing on who can win; not manipulating or forcing a way through difficult ideas? Will this get to the roundness of any potential solution that will work well for all? When an overall direction has been decided on, it will still need detailed planning of ways to implement things so that various perspectives get taken into account and acted on, with managers willing to work across domains and differences.

There are tried-and-tested aspects of this: Scrutiny Committees; Select Committee processes; separation of powers; checks and balances; inter-organisational partnerships and so on. These may run the risk of delaying getting on with the task in front of us but may be preferable to single-perspective, pushing ahead of something that may, eventually, turn out to be mistaken.

It all still largely remains in the realm of talking with broadly similar-viewed people. It is not necessarily the best way of planning routes forward but has something in it.

If we try actively planning with the opposition, we may find that there is more common ground than might be imagined. In a not very rigorous (but none-the-less illuminating) set of on-the-street interviews for a popular TV show, people asked about voting allegiances were clearly able to identify themselves as Labour, Conservative etc. When presented with a list of policy proposals, many convinced Conservatives thought several were the right and proper thing to do and were astounded to find that these were actually the policy ideas of a Labour leader considered to be extreme.

Sharing their thinking rather than slavishly following party-lines, sections of society which see each other as being in strong opposition, if not the enemy, may be able to agree some common ground around social issues such as:

  • Groups of young people being proportionally underemployed  and socially marginalised – with a sense that they might form a ‘lost generation’
  • Fundamentalist cultures having the potential to clash, intentionally or otherwise, to the detriment of those involved
  • The existence of localities that appear to be doomed forever not to flourish
  • There being few ways of agreeing about ‘Value’ despite it being seen as important
  • Children growing up negatively affected by poverty, whilst solutions seem to exist
  • Decision-makers being increasingly distanced from the situations about which they are being asked to decide
  • Leaders and managers being expected to operate within contexts that are more flexible and contingent than the situations they have been prepared or trained for: things don’t progress at the scale and pace possible
  • Services being conceptualised, organised and delivered on the basis of what has happened in the past rather than what is needed in the future
  • Illegal and anti-social activities (eg child abuse/neglect)seeming constantly to find new forms; but those responsible for countering it are left using outmoded tools to do the job
  • Notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ seem to be coalescing and becoming unreliable in their use

For any of the above topics, if there were more planning with those with diametrically-opposed viewpoints then some of the overlaps of beliefs might come to the fore, the proposed ways forward may be broader-based with less chance of being reversed at the first sign of difficulty or as soon as the economic or political context changes. Jointly-intended outcomes may then have more chance of being attained.

This would require:

  • Agile thinking as opposed to block-allegiances
  • Flexible shiftings as new insights emerge as opposed to clinging on to core stances come what may
  • Self-testing, reality-checking, considering all possibilities …but not becoming chameleon-like, fitting in with whatever is around at the time, blending in for a quiet time.

This seems to imply that there are strong gains to be had from sitting alongside those who hold quite different, and somewhat opposing, views and trying then to see a clear way forward taking into account a much broader range of perspectives than one might otherwise have been able to experience.

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