March 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Taking a stand: Extension and Public Policy Issues


Richard L. Barrows
Natural Resource Economist,
Department of Agricultural Economics,
Cooperative Extension Service,
University of Wisconsin- Madison

Should Extension agents or specialists take a stand on important public Policy questions facing their county or state? Should home economists speak out on proposals to ban phosphates from soaps or should agricultural agents speak out on pesticide Policy? Are we morally obligated to use our knowledge to help society resolve the critical issues of our time?

Should Extension take a stand? The question has probably been around as long as Extension. And, since at least the mid-50s, Extension economists and others have discussed methodology for "public policy education"Extension educational programs that apply the knowledge of the land-grant university to public issues to educate citizens to make better-informed policy decisions.1

But should we be involved in public policy education 9 if we do get involved, should we take a stand? The answers, in my opinion, are an unequivocal YES to the first question and an unequivocal NO to the second.

Extension should be, and inevitably is, involved in public policy issues. Each of us will decide whether to take a stand and our decision may be explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious. Our only real choice is whether to develop a conscious and rational answer.

Should We Be Involved?

Extension should be involved in education on public policy issues. We're morally obliged to help grapple with the policy issues of the society. Extension is publicly funded for the specific purpose of applying the knowledge of the land-grant university to improve the quality of life of the people. Extension's mission isn't narrow, as evidenced by the 1915 statement of Chairman Butterfield on Extension: "It will give farmers light upon taxation as well as upon tree pruning. The rural school will have as much attention as corn breeding...."2 We have no right to retreat into ivory-tower isolation for lack of courage to deal with the controversy that's inherent in the democratic process.

The land-grant university in general, and Extension in particular, is concerned with the problems of people and is committed to using the knowledge of the university to improve people's well-being. An increasingly important part of what affects people's well-being is decided in the public arena, through policy decision on matters such as international trade, farm programs, welfare reform, abortion, nutrition policy, education, land use planning. In the best Jeffersonian tradition, if the democratic process is to survive, the people must be reasonably well-informed and able to participate in the decision-making process.

Not only are we morally obligated to operate in the policy arena, but we couldn't avoid it even if we wanted to. In the past three decades, the vast improvement in communications technology and the pervasive influence of public policies in all phases of our lives have made people increasingly aware of, and interested in, public policy issues. In an age of "limits"-in natural resources, economic growth, and other areas, public policy decisions are more complex and important, and yet it's more difficult to reach consensus.3 The demand and need for knowledge is probably greater today than ever before.

Most Extension county agents and state specialists have become de facto public policy educators. A few years ago, most Extension activities might have been viewed as "giving technical advice." Today many of these same activities are viewed as "taking a stand." For example, an agricultural agent recommending a pesticide to a potato farmer must be aware of the debate about pesticides and environmental protection. The agent's "technical" advice, especially if he/she engages in a public defense of farm chemicals, will be viewed by many as taking a stand against environmental protection. Almost all Extension agents and specialists are involved in policy, even if we don't realize it, and regardless of whether we like it or not.

How Should We Be Involved?

Two Teaching Models

The Extension educator can use one of two teaching models in dealing with public Policy issues, whether in designing a complete Extension program or only making a few off-the-cuff remarks to an audience at a meeting. The teaching models may be consciously employed or implicit in the way the educator handles policy questions.

The Advocacy Model is used in taking a stand on policy issues. In the model's simplest version, the educator examines the issues in light of his/her professional knowledge and personal values, identifies the policy alternative he/she believes is best for society, and argues strongly for this position.4 If the educator works only with one clientele, he/she may try to identify the policy believed best for that clientele.

The Alternatives-Consequences Model is used if the educator believes he/she should not take a stand on policy issues. In the most common version of the model, the educator helps people clarify the problem or issues, outlines the policy alternatives and the likely consequences of each, and leaves the decision to the democratic process. This version is used ill' the audience is the general public, is large, or has diverse values or interests in the issues.

In the second version of this model, the educator is given the "desired consequences" by his/her audience and helps them understand which alternatives might produce particular consequences and the "side effects" that might be produced at the same time. This version is often used when the group is small and homogeneous, or with a single individual in an informal meeting. This version doesn't turn the educator into an ad vocate if he/she is objective, works with a variety of groups, and doesn't become too closely identified with any one point of view. This version is very practical, but is more dangerous to use because the educator assumes that the group understands the problem (which may be incorrect), assumes that the audience agrees on the consequences desired (which may be incorrect), and runs the risk of being perceived as an advocate.

I believe that the Alternatives-Consequences Model, or some variation, is the most appropriate for Extension educators. Extension agents and specialists shouldn't take a stand, as educators, on public policy issues. In dealing with policy issues, any program or information must be as objective and neutral as possible. Advocacy isn't education.

The Alternatives-Consequences Model is most appropriate because: (1) it's consistent with the role of the land-grant university in a democratic society, (2) the educator has no right to be an advocate, and (3) using the model is the only way to survive in policy education in today's political environment.

Education and Democracy

The Alternatives-Consequences Model is consistent with the Jeffersonian view of the role of education in democracy and is based on the premise that: (1) individuals can determine which alternative actions best further their own interests and (2) the democratic process is a reasonable way of making decisions when people disagree about what to do.

First of all, the Alternatives-Consequences Model is based on the belief that individuals generally know their own preferences and are able to use whatever knowledge they have to decide which courses of action are most likely to advance their interests. People don't always act selfishIy-sometimes they favor a policy because they believe it's best for society or morally right even though their interests, say economic interests narrowly defined, would be harmed by the policy.

This "enlightened self-interest" means that people have the basic intelligence or common sense to be able to judge which policy alternative is most in accord with their own preferences-or at least that people are able to make these judgments for themselves better than anyone else (including the Extension educator) can make the judgments for them. This enlightened self-interest works best if individuals have good knowledge of current conditions and the consequences of various possible changes, precisely the type of information Extension can provide. Our responsibility as Extension educators is to teach people how to think, not to think for them.

Secondly, the Alternatives-Consequences Model is based on a belief in the democratic process. Public policy decisions are almost always a compromise among many individuals, groups, and decision makers with conflicting interests in the issue. Therefore, no single "public interest" and no "optimal" policy choice exists. The very existence of debate means that the perceived interests of different groups conflict. The relative gains or losses will depend on the policy alternative adopted. Scientific knowledge can't determine the "correct" policy choice because science can't supply the value judgment that ranks the interests of one group above another.

The Right To Advocate

The Extension educator has no right to assume an advocacy position. The vast majority of policy issues involve situations in which either: (1) the necessary objective data aren't a] I known; or (2) the known facts can be legitimately interpreted in two or more ways; or (3) the facts are known and have only one interpretation, but different value systems lead individuals to choose different policy alternatives; or (4) combinations of these. If we take an advocacy position, we're really saying that we're the only ones capable of knowing all the facts, and/or have the only correct interpretation of the generally known facts, and/or have the most appropriate set of values for the society. Plato's philosopher-king could claim such wisdom; since we were hired to be educators, not philosopher-kings, it's best not to assume that role.


The Advocacy Model isn't effective in the long run. If we advocate a particular position, we'll alienate some who disagree. Repeating this advocacy on issue after issue will eventually alienate almost everyone. At some point, our credibility will decline to the point that we can't be effective as educators. The Advocacy Model won't even work for a single clientele group because, although the group may be united on some issues, it will be divided on others.

The Advocacy Model is also potentially disastrous for Extension as an organization. Individual specialists and agents, each choosing the Advocacy Model on numerous sensitive issues, will collectively alienate just about everyone and may reduce the level of support for Extension as a whole. Any of us can use the Advocacy Model-once. Some can use it two or three times and still be able to function as an educator. But for most of us, certainly in the long run, operating as an advocate disguised as an educator isn't a viable strategy.

Extension Agent as Citizen

Avoiding advocacy in our role as educator doesn't mean we can't express our opinions on public issues or lobby elected representatives as private citizens. The difficulty is that it's not easy to separate the actions of the educator from those of the private citizen. Some agents and specialists engage in very little political activity "off the job" to avoid confusion between their roles as educator and private citizen. Often, county agents and state specialists (myself included) take leaves-of-absence to work in non-Extension governmental jobs; the job may require us to be advocates, or we may be perceived as advocates simply by our position in government.

Advocacy is the very essence of democracy, and these concerns don't mean that Extension educators can't exercise the political rights and freedoms of an American citizen. But there's an inevitable trade-off between political and governmental activity on one hand and one's perceived objectivity and non-advocacy on the other. Each individual must seek a balance that he/she believes appropriate.

Objectivity and Political Neutrality

The Extension educator must be objective when dealing with public policy issues. True, perfect objectivity is humanly impossible, but, in striving for objectivity and avoiding advocacy, we'll be trying to maintain a position of neutrality among the various political interests.

However, objective information and non-advocacy do not mean the educator or the program is politically neutral. We choose to address issues that our values and our professional training tell us are important, which isn't politically neutral.5 When we address an issue, we increase the public's awareness of it, which isn't politically neutral. For example, even a "perfectly" objective program in 1984 on acid rain wouldn't be politically neutral because it would increase awareness of the problem and probably aid those who want to place the issue on the national political agenda.

Sometimes simply providing objective information to the public may upset the strategy of one side or another in the political debate. For example, when voters lack information on tax referenda, they're more likely to vote no, other things being equal. Providing "perfectly" objective information on a tax referendum favors a yes vote and obviously isn't politically neutral. Also, increasing a group's understanding of an issue increases its ability to effectively use whatever political leverage it may have. And, all else equal, an educational program will benefit groups without good knowledge more than groups that already clearly understood the issues, alternatives, and consequences.6 We must try to be objective, but we won't be strictly neutral.


Clearly, even complete objectivity and a non-advocacy method won't produce political neutrality. When we deal with policy issues, we always run some risk of generating political controversy with which we, other Extension faculty, and administrators must deal. Extension agents and specialists will inevitably touch on public policy issues in their work, even if they think they focus only on "technical" subjects. A conscious decision to adopt the Alternatives-Consequences Model will help minimize the problems, but in the end Extension agents, specialists, administrators, and Extension as an organization must recognize that we're all involved in public policy education, like it or not.


  1. For discussion of the development of economists' public policy education methodology and philosophy, see Vern House, Shaping Public Policy: The Educator's Role (Bozeman, Montana: Westridge Publishing, 1981).
  2. R. L. Reeder, "Rethinking Public Policy Education," Journal of Extension, VIII (Spring, 1970), 18.
  3. For a discussion of the future and the need for public policy education, see Charles P. Gratto and others, "Public Affairs-Still Testing the Jeffersonian Hypothesis," in Heritage Horizons: Extension's Commitment to People, C. Austin Vines and Marvin A. Anderson, eds. (Madison, Wisconsin: Extension Journal, Inc., 1976), pp. 175-84.
  4. Other, more complex and sophisticated versions of the Advocacy Model are discussed in two thoughtful articles by James H. Laue, "Coping with Conflict: Understanding Strategies and Developing Skills," and "Value-Free Objective Educators." Both papers are contained in Coping with Conflict: Strategies for Extension Community Development and Public Policy Professionals (Ames: Iowa State University, North Central Regional Center for Rural Development ' 1979). Another discussion can be found in Richard Barrows, Public Policy Education: Key Concepts and Methods, North Central Regional Extension Bulletin NCR-203 (Madison: University of Wisconsin-Extension, 1983).
  5. This call for objectivity shouldn't be confused with the myth that social science is value-free. As Scriven noted a decade ago, that argument is, or should be, a long-dead horse. My point is that when an Extension educator discusses with people a policy issue, the alternatives, and the consequences, he/she should try to separate value from fact as much as possible. In particular, the educator shouldn't allow his/her values to become so dominant in the educational program that he/she becomes an advocate for a particular policy alternative. For a discussion of values and science, see Michael Scriven, "Objectivity and Subjectivity in Educational Research," in Philosophical Redirection of Educational Research, Lawrence G. Thomas, ed. (Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education, 1972).
  6. For a good discussion of information and politics, see Reeder, "Rethinking Public Policy Education."