The “Rational-Comprehensive” Planning Model

Apparently such a thing exists and people can do courses on it. [Google cross-hit]. Not heard of it before but, call me cynical, I don’t like the sound of it, sounds doomed to failure of planned objectives, with plenty of solid blame-shifting, Brunsson-hypocritical, arse-covering, “somebody else’s problem” problems.

[Post Note Sept 2010 – I have researched this and can find no clear text on “Rational Comprehensive Planning” by that name. Rational Planning models, Synoptic Planning models, Incremental / Evolutionary Planning models, Individual Rationality, Social Rationality and an unspecified “third mode of rationality”. If anyone commenting could please provide relevant reference links. I stand by my point that “rational comprehensive” as a concept is doomed to fail due to its dependence on a presumed core metaphysics. That is, I still favour an evolutionary view, where planning guides and provides the environment for activities, but does not (cannot) comprehensively plan outcomes on any scale where the planner / manager cannot actually control all the individual activities. “All” being a very large and complex word.

And here we find (Luzzi 2001) “Although it has a myriad of names … It has been identified as the ruling or normal paradigm that governs the practice of modern planning.” Received wisdom, as I said, and “It is in the exportation of the model into the social world of practice that the assumptions prove problematic.” ie great in theory, not so good in practice as anyone would predict starting from a less scientistic metaphysics – the kind of model that requires hypocrisy to make it work.]

13 thoughts on “The “Rational-Comprehensive” Planning Model”

  1. well, this is the most basic form of planning, and is the most popular.
    it follows the following steps…
    (1) goal setting, (2) identification of policy alternatives, (3) evaluation of means against ends, and (4) implementation of decisions. (
    As simple as that.
    Well, a cynical person can see doom even in simple things. True!

  2. I did invite you to “call me cynical” so fair game 🙂

    The framework of steps is fine as far as it goes – but notice that none of them as described include the words “rational” or comprehensive” despite the name of the method / model.

    What’s in a name ? My fear is that people assume that “popular” ideas (received wisdom) about what’s rational make it somehow correct and comprehensive, and in doing so forget that management decision making involves a lot more complex and subjective issues. (It’s easy to do the numbers, harder to do the people.)

    Can I suggest reading Nils Brunsson’s works on “irrationality” and “hypocrisy”. They used to be on Management MBA reading lists in my day.

    Tools are only as good as the practicioners using them. The name of this tool could trap unsuspecting users into a false sense of security.

  3. You do realize that the RCM has been in world-wide use since the 1950s. In fact, where you live has most likely been planned using this model. As a planning student, I would know that this is an extremely logical model for land-use planning. This model ensures minimal negative impacts of the planning process, and gives the best result to any planning issue. Not only does it enable planners to choose the most relavent way to relieve an issue, it also takes into account the population or residents of the area. It’s efficient, and it minimizes the negative effects that the ations of one land user has upon the interest of others.
    If you’re not a planner, you most likely wouldn’t know what the RCM is, but any planner should, and does, know and use it.

  4. Hi Liz, I’m an engineer of over 28 years experience, so I do know more than a little about project planning, cost-benefit analyses, environmental impact assessments and the like.

    So, I know what the RCM is, even though I’d not previously heard it referred to by that name, otherwise I wouldn’t have commented. It’s traditional and classical, which means as you say, it’s “extremely logical”. This is the point I take issue with.

    Being extremely logical, means that it is not necessarily very “wise”. ie it emphasises efficiencies and optimisations, but not “effectiveness” in any holistic system sense. The irony I was commenting on, is that the name RCM advertises this failing.

  5. welll there has been paradigm shift and the RCM has been shaken…though no solution to it has been offered…Alexander 1984 gives insight into the different alternatives available though none has been able to completely for a new paradigm

  6. Thanks Taka. I was suspecting from the number of hits I get on the subject of RCM, that there must have been more recent interest. What you says is welcome news.

    Could you give me a more specific reference / link or even your own summary of what the newer RCM thinking is (after Alexamder, or whoever) ?

  7. i am still a first year student in the subject but i think,though very criticized, the RCM has good a foresight in as far as societal aesthetics are concerned but cannot be properly undertaken because of normative resistance to change. All things being equal this model is not perfect yes but very effective and should be given more attention

  8. Interesting how this post still gets hits 6 years after I posted it. Do you know anything about the Alexander 1984 reference above ? It looks like I will have to research current RCM.

  9. pls kindly send more of this to my mail, i will really appreciate it cis am a student and i want to know more.Thank you

  10. Formal planning is a systematic process. The most popular rational planning model lists four basic steps in the process. We will not try to reduce the formal planning process to “four easy steps,” but instead will describe the process as it is used in complex situations. Here we discuss basic elements of the planning process. These elements provide a general pattern of rational planning. They do not form a step-by-step procedure, yet the sequence approximates behavior in a for­mal planning environment

  11. procss of planning
    Establish Objectives
    Evaluate Environmental Factors
    Articulate Assumptions
    Involve Management and Staff
    Develop Alternatives
    Evaluating and Choosing Alternatives
    Stratify Plans
    Communicate Plans
    Develop Supporting Plans
    Implement an Action Plan
    Follow up/Appraisal

  12. Great insights, Ian! I am very much in favor of taking an evolutionary view to planning, as you suggest. Currently, I am a second-year planning student at the University of Oregon and have heard my professors list the following as limitations to the RCM:
    -The political process is driven by power and interest group pressures and often does not reflect the public interest

    -Scientific analysis (especially in the social realm) doesn’t necessarily lead to optimal conclusions –think wicked problems

    -The public expects to be involved in the analysis; it is not “objective”

    -Resources are limited and priorities have to be set.

    While this article doesn’t explicitly refer to RCM as “Rational Comprehensive Planning” it is a classic article on the topic:
    Altshuler, A. (1965). The goals of comprehensive planning. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 31(3), 186-195.

  13. Thanks for the comment Leslie.
    For a post that was little more than a passing reference posted 16 years ago, it gets a lot of hits.

    Interestingly I’m in a real world project situation right now where overly prescriptive detailed planning is killing our actual aims at Collaborative / Agile Working in a digital transformation project, one that also has a public accountability angle.

    I’d be interested in newer work that recognises and addresses the problem.

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