Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Forum // 3FRM1

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From Reactive to Proactive: A Continuum


Daniel J. Decker
Assistant Professor and Department Extension Leader
Department of Natural Resources
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Carol L. Anderson
Associate Director
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Ithaca, New York

A term often heard among many Cooperative Extension educators is "proactive." Being proactive rather than reactive has been a goal of the land-grant/Cooperative Extension System for 75 years. As we take a hard look nationwide at the Cooperative Extension System and think about its future, it might be helpful to analyze the distinction between the concepts of reactiveness and proactiveness in Cooperative Extension programming. To begin our analysis, we submit that rather than being a dichotomy of reactive-proactive approaches to programming, a continuum exists:


reactive-defensive / reactive-responsive / anticipatory-reactive / proactive

  • Reactive-Defensive. Programmatically, we get caught cold in an area where we have responsibility and need to react quickly to a situation to avoid further organizational embarrassment. Unanticipated emergency EPA regulations on use of pesticides that had previously been recommended by Cooperative Extension might be an example where a program has to be developed in this mode.

  • Reactive-Responsive. We assess the current situation, identify existing needs, and develop a program to meet those needs. The recent farm crisis saw the system respond to a critical need with a planned effort for the farm families struggling with financial insecurity and the related consequences.

  • Anticipatory-Reactive. We estimate what the situation and related needs will be during some specified time frame and develop programs to meet the anticipated needs. Rural revitalization has been recognized as a need if the rural community structure is to remain a viable force in America. Developing programs to help communities assess opportunities and update or build the appropriate financial and human resource base has been an anticipatory-reactive response. Leadership development experiences for the potential leaders empowers individuals to become active participants in determining what happens.

  • Proactive. We anticipate what the situation and related needs will be during some specified time in the future, help constituents decide what a better alternative future would look like, and develop educational programs to help people change elements affecting the future so that it will be "better," from their perspectives. For example, the challenges facing youth are complex. Substance abuse, teen pregnancy, suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, and high school dropout rates are a reality in most communities. Teaching youth to develop a healthy self-concept, improve social skills, develop decision-making skills, and examine job and career choices has a research base in the land-grant system that can significantly change the future.

Of the categories described above to depict the reactive-proactive continuum, Extension seldom finds itself in the reactive-defensive mode. But, on occasion, this is inevitable and we should allow for this contingency as we plan time for programming - that is, we need to allow for some unspecified time to accommodate these kinds of efforts. It's important to organizational survival.

More often, we find ourselves in the reactive-responsive mode. We develop programs for current needs. This occurs largely because of the dynamic nature of the times we're in. Technological changes are occurring around us at an accelerated rate and, unlike the "good old days," many of those changes aren't a result of the research emanating from the land-grant system. This makes our anticipation of change more difficult.

The anticipatory-reactive mode of programming is common. It's often confused with the less-often-practiced proactive mode, but is clearly different. Probably the major reasons for the difference is in how Extension programmers view their role as educators. The anticipatory-reactive programmer sees his/her role as the helpful public servant and the educational program as a way to help prepare people to solve problems they're likely to encounter. The proactive programmer sees his/her role as an educator. The educational program is viewed as a powerful intervention to influence the future by enabling people to use knowledge and skills to control their lives and living environment, and to accelerate personal and professional development.

Challenges before us as we develop our Extension programs include: (1) avoiding reactive-defensive modes as much as possible, but building in flexibility to operate in that mode when it's essential; (2) maintaining enough programming in the reactive-responsive and anticipatory-reactive modes to ensure that people recognize our relevance, since these are the modes from which people can most easily identify immediate personal benefits; and (3) have a substantial amount of our programming effort in the proactive mode so we're having a significant influence in helping people to shape their future.

We must be diligent if we're to be successful in addressing these challenges. Without periodic examination, the natural tendency among Extension educators is to shift effort toward the reactive-responsive modes of activity. Fortunately, the indepth systemwide planning and evaluation process we engage in every four years presents an opportunity to keep this tendency in check. Perhaps, as we soon enter the next four-year planning cycle, we should also view it as a chance to change.