Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Searchers and Planners

William Easterly's 2006 book, "The White Man's Burden" is an excellent guide to the problems and opportunities of western foreign aid to the developing world. He also develop a great analytical tool for public policy in general.

Easterly sets the stage by dividing into planners and searchers. Planners start at the top, set goals and develop global blue prints to achieve them. Searchers look at the problem from the bottom up, and seek specific workable solutions to the specific problems.

For Easterly, planners announce good intentions but don't motivate anyone to achieve them. Searchers find things that work and get some reward. A planner thinks he knows the answers and develop technical engineering solution to achieve them. A searcher hopes to find the answer only through trial and error and experimentation. Searchers could find ways to make a specific task work if they could concentrate on the task itself instead of the big plan.

I think that Easterly's nomenclature is a great analytical tool for public policy at all levels. Obviously, few policy solutions fit perfectly into each category. However, the answer does not lie somewhere in the middle.

Action and experimentation are the only ways to actually test an idea. And look at a problem from the ground level is the only way to develop the idea. Let me provide an example. In higher education policy, we have been trying to find a way for financial aid to effectively get students through college. We could start at the top and figure out how much it costs a student to get through college and then look the income level of the student and then multiply that number times the number of students. This would be a very expensive number.

Or you could start at the bottom and figure out what is happening with individual customers when they try to figure out how to access a college education. You will find that the amount of aid available is a huge problem. But probably not the place to start. College financial aid staff on the ground level are tearing their hair out trying to figure out who is eligible for what. And students often give up in frustration figuring out what they are eligible for and how to find it. The biggest problem reported by students is lack of guidance.

A large part of the problem is it is too complicated and discouraging. A solution would lead you to spend a lot of time figuring out how to simplify it and how to market it to people so it motivate them to make to take advantage of what's available.

There is a connection between searching and planning. That might be best practices. Learning from what works on the ground and sharing it with others could provide ideas that could be adapted to similar problems elsewhere. The danger is that funders might be tempted to create a cookbook of cookie cutter approaches that determine what approaches they will fund in the future. This would discourage way to many new and good approaches to solving problems.

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