Gov. Haley Barbour and the legislature face tough financial choices this year, as Mississippi, along with the rest of the nation, continues to deal with the global economic crisis. But these tough times also present an opportunity for the state to do more than just cope with the immediate crisis: Mississippi also can work to find smart ways to address the chronic social and economic problems that have plagued the state for decades — now, not in some far-flung future.
Recently, the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute convened a forum at Jackson State University to discuss new strategies for tackling some of the systemic problems that have affected Mississippi for far too long: poverty and financial illiteracy, educational underachievement, poor health outcomes, and crime. The conference attendees were as diverse as the policy issues addressed and included more than 100 community advocates, business leaders, elected officials, and policy researchers.
While the issues discussed varied widely, consensus emerged on a number of common, interrelated themes:
- Linking knowledge to action — To address difficult problems like underachievement in education, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Effective research can use lessons learned from past experiences to craft solutions for problems here and now. We need to identify the programs that work and explore what it will take to expand their success and sustain their effectiveness. Research organizations such as universities, civic groups, and RAND Gulf States can be valuable resources in defining problems, measuring progress, and developing cost-effective solutions. For example, RAND applied its knowledge of recruitment and retention of military personnel to the challenges facing police departments post-Katrina.
- Collaborating for solutions — Rarely can a governmental agency, a nonprofit organization, or a private company solve hard problems alone. Effective solutions are identified and implemented when organizations work collaboratively to share resources, knowledge, and capacity to address common problems collectively. To make research relevant to problems on the ground, partnerships need to be crafted between researchers, community organizations and government agencies, so that researchers address questions that matter and answers get to the right people. For example, RAND health researchers are working in partnership with community organizations and Jackson State University in Moss Point to explore how best to bring evidence-based treatments for pressing health and mental health issues to underserved communities.
- Taking a regional approach to community problems — Systemic problems like poverty are not confined to city, county, and state lines. Too often, we have failed to see their interconnections and links. For our Gulf Coast communities to be competitive in the global marketplace, we need to look across political boundaries to embrace regional solutions for regional problems. RAND Gulf States is working with partners across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and beyond to develop solutions that affect the region as a whole and to promote our common economic assets.
The RAND Corporation has a 60-year history of providing high quality-analysis to solve systemic problems, and the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute is prepared to work in partnership with communities across the region to make the Gulf Coast a better place to live, do business, and raise our children.
Melissa Flournoy is director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute. RAND is a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Sun Herald - Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi on April 9, 2009.