Winter 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA5

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Public Issues: Danger or Opportunity

Extension's role in public policy education.

Gerald F. Vaughn
Specialist, Agricultural and Natural Resources Policy
Department of Food and Resource Economics
University of Delaware - Newark

The Chinese symbol for the word "crisis" is made up of two characters, one meaning "danger" and the other "opportunity." Danger is implicit in crisis, but there's also opportunity for constructive action to solve the problem.

Education on public issues is Extension's opportunity to contribute to solving the problems of our society. Issues aren't quite the same as problems, but rather are the questions and choices that surround problems and their solutions.

Will Education Help?

The Extension professional first must determine if an issue is one in which education can be beneficial or if emotions and opinions prevail. For example, the question of whether to allow prayer in the public schools is largely a matter of values and beliefs. It probably can't be decided on the basis of facts.

For those issues where education can be beneficial, we should place each problem and its surrounding issues in a decision-making framework. This helps the public reach its decision, take action based on that decision, and accept responsibility for it.

Our purpose is to help people analyze the problem, its alternative solutions, and the consequences. People want to know: "How will this alternative affect me?"

Three Principles To Use

We want to help people think through the problem in an orderly and logical manner. Predicting the consequences of alternative solutions can be based only on facts plus logical deduction. We should try to look forward and whenever possible call attention to problems before they assume crisis proportions, offering a sense of direction.

To be more specific, how does Extension work appropriately and responsibly in education on public issues? Can any principles guide us? I believe there are three: be factual, be analytical, and be objective.

The principles are the same whether we're working on issues of farm prices and income, environmental quality, family, training young people to be effective citizens through our 4-H programs, or rural communities. They apply whenever we're asked to become involved in public issues.

Examples include situations in which we're asked to provide information and materials to individuals and groups who are developing positions on public issues, or asked to review and comment on proposed legislation or regulations. The three principles will always help us as we respond to such requests.

Be Factual

First: be factual. Each of us is entitled to our own set of values, but not to our own set of facts. There's only one accurate and complete set of facts about an issue, setting out the pros and cons on all sides. The truth is the truth - it's the interpretation that can get us in trouble.

Knowing the truth isn't always easy or possible. Tanner reminds us: "What is counted as truth in one age is counted as myth in the next."1 We in Extension should provide the most accurate and complete information we can find through exhaustive search, yielding verifiable facts. Most often this will mean looking to published research. Facts take time and money to obtain, and sometimes the cost may be prohibitive. If well-documented verifiable facts can't be obtained, it may be necessary and acceptable to rely on the informed judgments of experienced and knowledgeable observers.

Try not to let emotions and opinions, including your own, divert attention from facts. People tend to pass lightly over facts, which often are difficult to understand. It's easier for most people to deal in emotions and opinions. The task is to increase the understanding and usefulness of facts, even when they run counter to pre-established values and beliefs.

We can't just provide raw uninterpreted data. These are facts, but they can't be readily understood by citizens or decision makers when we're dealing with complex socioeconomic, scientific, or engineering matters. Until facts are analyzed and presented in a usable format, they're almost worthless.

Be Analytical

This brings us to the second principle: be analytical. Factual information properly analyzed and presented reduces confusion, tension, and controversy. The most powerful force in resolving differences is a proven fact, made clear at the "teachable moment." This moment arrives after interest has developed, but before a decision is made.

Being analytical begins with clearly defining the problem. It's human nature to rush to solutions before doing so because defining the problem is time-consuming and difficult. It should answer questions such as: What precisely is the problem? Whose problem is it? What are its causes or contributing factors? Be very careful in associating cause and effect.

People are usually impatient and want to get on with considering alternative solutions, particularly in a crisis. We neglect probing for the real problem, which often isn't the apparent problem, but underlies it. We forget that defining the problem is indispensable to its solution.

Be Objective

We come now to the third principle: be objective. Objectivity should be adhered to above all else. There may be instances where adequate facts can't be obtained or where analytical methods are limiting. But in the interest of the public good, the Extension professional must be faultlessly objective.

The Extension professional must be trustworthy, demonstrating the qualities of a scholar. As Marshall says, a scholar is a learned person, especially one who has the essentials for learning, identified as "curiosity, perseverance, initiative, originality, integrity."2 To these, we might add that the Extension professional also should be practical and a good listener.

We should resist the temptation to fervently promote an alternative solution, even if it's our own. Breimyer observes: "We all want badly to believe . . . that our selfish interests dovetail with the public interest."3 Respect the values, beliefs, and alternative solutions of others. Keep an open mind and be willing to learn from others.

Be steadfast in encouraging open and equal access for all people to take part in public decisionmaking processes. Make people from all groups feel welcome and provide all with access to the same information. This will minimize risks, possible conflicts of interest, and undue criticism of Extension.

Keep the public good uppermost. Be concerned with what is right, not who is right.


Having examined the three principles, let's evalu ate the following letter according to these principles.

This letter was written to President Andrew Jackson, dated January 31, 1829, by the governor of one of our leading states, a man who later became president himself. Was the letter factual, analytical and objective?

To: President Jackson

The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as "railroads." The federal government must preserve the canals for the following reasons:

One. If canal boats are supplanted by "railroads," serious unemployment will result. Captains, cooks, drivers, hostlers, repairmen and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed in growing hay for horses.

Two. Boat builders would suffer and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute.

Three. Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of the expected trouble with England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.

For the above-mentioned reasons the government should create an Interstate Commerce Commission to protect the American people from the evils of "railroads" and to preserve the canals for posterity.

As you may well know, Mr. President, "railroad" carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by "engines" which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.

Martin Van Buren
Governor of New York4

Let's be factual, analytical, and objective! This will be Extension's unique contribution toward assuring that society's opportunity to solve a problem becomes the larger meaning of the word "crisis."


  1. Myron E. Sharpe, "The Lost Papers of Jack Tanner," Challenge, XIX (March-April 1976), 4.
  2. J. Paxton Marshall, "Extension Education on Public Policy Subjects" (Paper presented at Policymaking and Policy Education: A Washington Workshop for Extension Educators, March 1984), p. 1
  3. Harold F. Breimyer, "Breimyer's Eight Prickly Proverbs," April 6, 1981.
  4. "No Growth," The American Spectator, XVII (January 1984), 31.