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The below was response to an Assignment about Ethics and Urban Planning. I couldn’t hold my tongue on pointing out the blatant bullshit and I even found a nice article to do a lot of the debunking work for me. I hope you enjoy.

While reading the American Institute Certified Planners (AICP) code of ethics for an assignment at my university this week, difficult memories in my past as a public sector servant were conjured up. The following quote by famous English writer George Orwell sums up my experiences fairly well by stating that “in a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” This paper will discuss the ethical dilemma presented when a public servant who is expected to abide by a code of ethics, is expected to make a decision that is based on “uncomfortable knowledge.”

Uncomfortable knowledge is defined as “knowledge that is disagreeable or intolerable to an organization.” In essence, the situation may be better described as the ethical dilemma of the “whistleblower.” Should the public servant act with integrity and blow the whistle on the evildoings of those that are gaming the system? Or should they go into self-preservation mode, stay quiet and do as they are told?

Taking a step back, we should not overlook the root ethical dilemma of consent in the relationship between the sovereignty and the citizen. The conditions that precede the events that lead up to the whistleblower gaining uncomfortable knowledge are very important. In the case of Edward Snowden for example, a whistleblower that did not consent to the actions of his sovereignty, inquiry should begin with analyzing their conflicting interests, rather than the effects of the whistleblowers actions.

According to Flyvbjerg, this media tactic is called “diversion strategy.” Unfortunately, those with uncomfortable knowledge are not always compelled to act on their integrity in making that virtuous leap to becoming a whistleblower. Even worse is when the whistleblower is lambasted and criminalized through rule of law or fraudulent charges. It is very easy for evildoers to camouflage themselves behind the rule of law or lack thereof.

I am not convinced that the AICP code of ethics does much in the way of preserving avenues for planners to maintain their integrity and blow the whistle. Especially when according to Flyvbjerg, the American Planning Association (APA) which is the largest professional planning association in the nation, violated six of its own codes in order to block potential bad publicity about a transportation projects cost overrun study. The APA even issued a public statement in response to the study after its release which criticized it as being “overly analytical”. What happened to the code about planners that are supposed to be transparent with information? Below is a passage from the abstract of the study:

“Based on a sample of 258 transportation infrastructure projects worth $90 billion… the study documents a cost overrun of 45% for rail projects, 34% for bridges and tunnels, and 20% for roads. The policy implications are clear: legislators, administrators, investors, media representatives, and members of the public who value honest numbers should not trust cost estimates and cost-benefit analyses produced by project promoters and their analysts.”

In addition to this story, I find it strange that it’s so difficult to find a case where a planner has been brought up on charges of misconduct. The code looks nice on paper, but I have not found any evidence on how the four sections have been effective in bringing sanctions, revoking credentials or prosecuting any planner so far.  Even politicians have the occasional scapegoat to keep up appearances such as the Bob McDonnell, Anthony Weiner, Hillary Clinton, and Eric Holder investigations and cases. The APA is effectively unionizing planners and intentionally violating its own code of ethics in exchange for protecting its crony members.

As a previous public servant, please forgive my skepticism of the AICP code. I am well aware of being preached to about similar codes of ethics during my training stage and then witnessing regular and blatant violations of the code within the profession itself. Furthermore, my unwavering by-the-book attitude made me a target during my time in public service.

The AICP code is necessary to help build a much needed foundation and resource for planners to make the lines of organizational ethics less blurred. In the end, until critique of our processes and objections to uncomfortable knowledge is embraced, little progress is likely to be made and little sanctuary will be given to whistleblowers.

-Jonny

References:

https://www.planning.org/ethics/ethicscode.htm

Flyvbjerg, Bent. “How Planners Deal with Uncomfortable Knowledge: The Dubious Ethics of the American Planning Association.” Cities, 2013, 157-63. Accessed October 9, 2014. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S026427511200193X

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About Jonny Howie

I'm super awesome. That's all you need to know.

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