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A trendy antonym for “careless,” “haphazard” and “sloppy,” planful has taken the public-interest world by storm (though it’s been an orderly, responsible, and deliberate storm, to be sure). The person who first brought PLANFUL to my attention perfectly summed up what makes this piece of bland piety so annoying: “Prayerful, OK. Merciful, I hope. But please, let’s not imbue the relatively straightforward art / science of planning with too much mystery.”

Mystery is exactly what the users of PLANFUL are trying to conjure — though what they end up with is more often self-parody. Indispensable as a good plan may be, it does not fill anything except the mind of the planners (and, if it’s successful, maybe the minds of the people who act on the plan). A perfectly disastrous activity can nonetheless be stuffed like a Christmas goose with well-meaning plans — as many indeed are. The telling fact about PLANFUL is that, although it is often applied to important activities that are supposed to benefit lots of people, it actually describes only the people and process behind the activities — the folks whose cogitating and deliberating went into the plan. While seeming to describe results, it actually says nothing about them, preferring instead to dwell on preparation and process.

Those things are important, but only because they help bring about the intended results, and only to the extent that those results are actually desirable. For most people, the fact that something is well planned may be reassuring, but hardly decisive. Those who use PLANFUL want us to believe that the very act of planning is somehow deeply fulfilling, a kind of shiatsu for the body politic. For them, the word claims a place in the hushed and smoky temple of virtues, in the same pew as “joyful,” “bountiful,” and even that advertising favorite “flavorful” — words that imply an abundance of inner riches, something brimming with metaphysical qualities of immeasurable value. There are no doubt planners who derive that kind of satisfaction from their work, and we envy them. For the rest of us, however, the proof of the “flavorful” is in the tasting, and the best thing you can say about any public activity is not what it was full of, but whether it got anything done.


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