Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University
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Bent Flyvbjerg

Professor, Research Director, Dr. Techn., Dr. Scient., and Ph.D.

Notice: On April 1, 2009, Bent Flyvbjerg moved to University of Oxford. Flyvbjerg's Aalborg website is up to date until the time of his move. After this date, please see his site at Oxford:



Untruth in Policy and Planning

Untruth in policy and planning ranges from obvious lying to deception to unintended misinformation. Bent Flyvbjerg calls this the "dark side" of policy and planning. It is dark in the sense that little is known about the uses of untruth in policy and planning. It is also dark in the sense that normally it is illegitimate to use untruth in policy and planning, as judged by the canons of democracy.

Democracy and democratic policy and planning presuppose truth. There is an "obligation to truth" built into the constitutions and laws of most democracies. In practice this obligation is implemented by legal and administrative stipulations that ministers may not misinform parliaments, civil servants may not misinform ministers, civil servants must know and employ the state-of-the-art of their respective professional fields, etc. The idea is that the decisions made by parliament and other democratically elected bodies, national or local, should be based on truth.

But what if policy and planning are often based on untruth? That is the question Bent Flyvbjerg asks and attempts to answer in this part of his research. Flyvbjerg's research on rationality and power and on megaprojects showed that policy makers and planners frequently were more concerned about getting their policies and plans implemented than about truth. Often untruth was considered more conducive to implementation than truth, and untruth would be produced and used to secure implementation. To see an example of untruth at work in policy and plan implementation, click here.

There are four main tasks for research on untruth in policy and planning. The first is to identify the extent of untruth – defined as misinformation, deception, and lying – in policy and planning. The second task is to chart the "how" of untruth; how untruth is used in policy and planning and how it affects processes and outcomes, including who gains and who loses. The third task is to explain the "why" of untruth, that is, why actors in a truth-based system like democracy often see untruth as more effective for action than truth. The fourth and final task is to develop measures for how to deal with untruth, including measures of accountability.

The body of scholarly work on truth is extensive, from textbooks on research methodology to empirical studies of how truth is established in research laboratories to philosophical treatises on theories of truth. In comparison, the amount of scholarly work on untruth is minute, for empirical studies bordering on non-existent.

The absence of research on untruth, and especially lying, is understandable but a problem. It is understandable, because in order to establish that lying has taken place researchers need to know the intentions of actors. But if actors have actually lied they are unlikely to talk about this, because given the sanctions against lying that exist in most democracies talking could place actors at legal, ethical, and economic risk. Even for less incriminating forms of untruth than lying – unintended misinformation, for instance – it is often difficult to obtain high-quality data. This makes untruth an unusually difficult research object, especially for empirical studies. That is a problem, because given what we know it appears that misinformation, deception, and lying are important in policy and planning and thus we need to understand them in order to truly comprehend policy and planning.

The situation may be compared to doping in elite sports. The available evidence indicates that in order to fully understand actual performance in elite sports – say the Tour de France or the Olympic 100-meter run – we need to understand athletes' use of doping. But athletes are unlikely to reveal such use, because doping is an offense that may eliminate athletes from practicing their sport and land them in court. As a result, our knowledge of doping – like our knowledge about untruth in policy and planning – is patchy, even if it appears that such knowledge would be key to understanding outcomes.

Back to Main Page on the Relationship between Truth and Lying in Policy and Planning


Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Fibigerstraede 11 - 13, DK-9220 Aalborg East, Denmark, Phone: (+45) 96 35 80 80