Summer 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 2 // Futures // 2FUT1

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The Vision Shines Through


Michael Quinn Patton
Minnesota Extension Service-St. Paul

In November 1987, the Futures Task Force reported to the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy on "Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality." This landmark report for Extension concludes:

The system must restate its mission, develop a vision for the future, and formulate plans for the necessary transition to achieve the desired change.1

The Futures Task Force was chaired by Mitchell Geasler with 17 members representing various aspects of Extension. The report's 32 recommendations are based on five hearings about needed directions for Extension's future. On November 24, 1987, the task force held a national teleconference to present its recommendations. Some state Extension systems have widely distributed the report and devoted annual conference or staff meeting time to it. The report has been distributed to legislative and executive leadership in the federal government.

Although I see inconsistencies between different parts of the vision and reality as presented in the report, this is clearly an important document for Extension futurists and Extension professionals.

The Realities

The task force, as a result of five hearings, concluded that Extension:

  • Is a major contributor to the economic viability of American agriculture.
  • Makes a positive impact on clientele who participate in Extension programming.
  • Is an effective, non-biased source of educational information.
  • Is responsive to clientele concerns.
  • Tends to be a protector of the status quo.
  • Is too often reactionary rather than proactive.
  • Has disproportionate resources allocated to permanent staff.
  • Conducts some programs which do not have a research base.
  • Has a knowledge base limited by present college alliances.
  • Is limited in program delivery potential by existing club structure.
  • Lacks clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities of each of the three primary partners.

These are important, evaluative conclusions. The task force members have been forthright, even courageous, in openly stating that the national Extension system has weaknesses and must change if it's to stay relevant and effective. The report affirms Extension's past contributions and the need for an effective Extension system in the future, but the task force also found "a strong consensus of opinion concerning numerous key areas in need of strengthening."

Prominent Themes

The recommendations include the following prominent themes:

  • A new, broader mission is needed which conveys a "vision of a contemporary, progressive and forward-looking organization."
  • Issues must guide determination of program content.
  • "The system must transcend the former boundaries of program areas and disciplines to deliver issues-oriented educational programs."
  • Planning should be proactive and anticipatory so that Extension is dynamic, flexible, and responsive to change.
  • Traditional permanent disciplinary positions should be de-emphasized in favor of limited-term, issues-oriented interdisciplinary teams.
  • "Multicounty or regional issue-response teams should be developed within states." However, every county should continue to have an Extension staff member.
  • Extension at all levels should seek multiple and alternative funding sources even as traditional sources stay in place.
  • Programs should include increased opportunities for using volunteers.
  • There should be more cooperative multistate efforts.

Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality

The report presents a challenging vision, but it also contains paradoxes.

One of the barriers to Extension's transition into this vision is the politics of serving the interests of powerful, traditional Extension constituencies. The Futures Task Force Report recommends that clientele "be identified through a process that selects the most critical issues within the scope of expertise available to the system." The report also recommends cross-program and interdisciplinary efforts. Yet, the latter parts of the report have recommendations based on traditional clientele and programs.

The report calls for creating "Research/Extension Agricultural Centers of High Technology." While recognizing the need to integrate research and Extension, this recommendation assumes that for the foreseeable future commercial farmers using high technology should be primary clientele of Extension and serving those clients should be a priority program area. It's paradoxical, and perhaps contradictory, to advocate an open issues-oriented process aimed at cross-program and interdisciplinary work in one part of the report and then to identify specific clientele with a narrow program focus as a priority in another part.

Then, of course, having devoted a major recommendation to the agricultural program area, it's politically necessary for the report to deal directly with the family, youth, and community resource areas. A recommendation parallel in format to the agriculture recommendation is thus added.

These traditional program-based recommendations illustrate the politics of a transition to cross-program, interdisciplinary approaches. For a futurist vision to be realized, that vision must be sensitive to the vested interests of current constituencies. The big question is whether that sensitivity to the political realities of current program constituencies (both within and outside Extension) will hamper the transition so much that the vision can't be realized.

A particularly anomalous recommendation in contrast to the cross-program, interdisciplinary, and team-oriented vision of the early part of the report is the recommendation on youth programs:

The Extension System at the state level should work to locate the Extension 4-H Youth Program within a relevant Department of the University.

This recommendation follows one that gives strong support to the important future of youth programs in Extension and is written in the context of the need for family, 4-H youth, and community programs to be research/knowledge-based. Yet, the recommendation to place youth programs within a single department is clearly inconsistent with a genuinely cross-program, interdisciplinary approach. From a broad, visionary, and futuristic perspective, the way to support and enhance youth programs is not to hide and confine them within a single departmental structure.

Another potentially restricting recommendation is that clientele "be identified through a process that selects the most critical issues within the scope of expertise available to the system." The point here, appropriately made by the Futures Task Force, is that Extension programs must be research/knowledge-based. However, the "expertise available to the system" can too easily be interpreted to mean regular faculty within those departments traditionally associated with Extension.

Moreover, the report recognizes that in the future Extension must rely less on permanent specialists and more on short-term expertise brought in under contract to deal with specific issues. From that perspective, there should be no limits to the expertise available. Indeed, a forward-looking, proactive Extension organization will be prepared to do whatever is necessary to find the best expertise for priority issues.


The report is an important, visionary document. It deserves serious consideration and discussion. Its limitations reflect the political realities of current Extension organization, staffing, clientele, and constituencies. In my judgment, these political realities make it internally inconsistent and, in places, contradictory. The broad, futurist vision of Extension in the early part is somewhat undercut by the more narrow, tradition-bound specific recommendations of the latter part.

Nevertheless, the vision shines through. Staff in each state would do well to check current realities against that vision and reflect on what it will take to bridge the gap between vision and reality for an Extension system in transition.


1. Futures Task Force to the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality (Blacksburg: Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, 1987).