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commentary

(The RAND Blog)

September 4, 2013

Translating Policy Into Action to Build Community Resilience

photo by George Armstrong/FEMA

by Anita Chandra and Joie D. Acosta

Each day, we are confronted with new stories about the devastation caused by events such as the economic downturn; horrifying community violence, like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School; and devastating natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy.

Unfortunately, disasters have become more common and more costly in recent years. What's worse, some areas — such as the Gulf Coast — may endure overlapping disasters, which can create competition for resources and undermine response and recovery efforts. This has required grassroots leaders and national policymakers to shift away from the traditional emergency preparedness model toward a new perspective: community resilience.

While preparedness focuses on a limited range of organizations and employs a top-down approach, community resilience is relationship-based and invites a range of new organizations to the table to work on disaster response and recovery. While the basis of preparedness is the emergency plan, the roots of resilience are grounded in making improvements to regular, day-to-day activities (embedding risk planning in routine health and social services, for example), bringing in nongovernmental organizations, and reorganizing how we approach community development. While preparedness emphasizes immediate recovery from disasters, resilience aims for long-term recovery. This means returning to normal functioning and applying lessons from past responses to better withstand future incidents.

Community resilience is not just about disaster. Rather, it raises questions that challenge how we build strong and sustainable communities in the face of the demographic, social, and economic changes of the 21st century. For example, how do we bring together government and nongovernmental partners equitably in planning discussions? How do communities care for the most vulnerable?

Yet, despite the energy and excitement building around community resilience, there remains a divide between how experts articulate resilience policy and how that policy translates to on-the-ground implementation.

For instance, a resilience policy might emphasize the importance of strong partnerships, or call for improvements to overall self-sufficiency to help communities thrive before and after receiving federal support. But it probably won't describe what these partnerships and improvements look like in much detail.

Part of what's causing this is that resilience experts may not have aligned their research with conditions on the ground. Similarly, they may have failed to consider the various factors that can help create social structures that foster resilience. Just because research leads to an evidence-based conceptual framework doesn't mean it will translate into an operational model that community stakeholders can use.

Another source of tension between policy and implementation is the fact that reimagining community social systems is often easier said than done. Rather than attempting to create new systems from scratch, resilience seeks to align with community power, decisionmaking, norms, culture, and assets that already exist. This can be a tall order for policymakers and academics, as it turns the research model on its head.

Despite the grassroots nature of the resilience agenda, we have both seen first-hand how important concepts can get lost in a maze of debate over definitions and parameters. There simply hasn't been enough discussion about how the research and policy would or could be translated into action.

The philosophy and motivation surrounding community resilience has strongly resonated with community leaders we've worked with in the field. However, many of them still want to know: how do I make resilience happen?

To fill this need, we developed Building Community Resilience: An Online Training. This easy-to-use, web-based training is squarely focused on addressing the tension between policy and implementation. Building Community Resilience distills the extensive body of research on resilience-building into simple steps that communities and organizations can take to help strengthen themselves against all kinds of disasters.

As communities continue to use this training, determine what works and what doesn't, and share their innovations through a growing community of practice, we'll be able to truly test whether resilience policy has hit the right note.


Anita Chandra is a senior policy researcher and Joie Acosta is a behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.