Fall 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA4

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Alternative Extension Scenarios


Ellen L. Fitzsimmons
State Program Leader
Family Living Education
University of Wisconsin-Extension
Cooperative Extension Service
Madison, Wisconsin

What will the Cooperative Extension Service look like in the future? The report of the Futures Task Force to the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy recommends that Cooperative Extension "formulate a system of planning which encourages the organization to anticipate emerging issues and to develop responsive programs,"1 and calls for a National Anticipatory Planning Task Force. The anticipatory planning team should "construct possible scenarios, develop contingency plans, and advise decision makers."2 Developing alternative scenarios, is, then, one strategy to help an organization select and shape its future. This article presents four possible scenarios. Which of these alternative scenarios best represents Cooperative Extension's future?

Information Specialist Scenario

Based on a population formula, each county throughout the nation is provided with at least one information specialist, whose job is to respond to local questions and concerns. The information service is promoted to local businesses and professional groups. Each county maintains an extensive computer network linking the county with university campus databases.

Audio hookups connect local offices with the campus when discussion with a campus specialist is necessary. The local information specialist helps with the interpretation of data for local groups and feeds local concerns directly to campus-based staff. A planning formula categorizes user requests and automatically generates program priorities based on those requests. Each county pays for usage of the computer system. Outside users may purchase direct access to the campus-based datasets.

State specialists primary work is to update and adapt data to the databases. Local information specialists work in close collaboration with the county and city library system and are frequently housed together. This allows for cost-sharing equipment and helps to offset the costs of state-of-the-art equipment. Local information specialists train paraprofessionals who help citizens use materials available in each county learning center. Learners may select from individually designed programs or may select an appropriate pre-developed package. Staff development for information specialists builds on the technology transfer and mediated delivery backgrounds of most of the employees.

Administrative staff is minimal. Campus-based specialists are the tie to campus departments. Campus-based researchers do work in the high request areas. Health and medical information requests increase, particularly information about the care of the ever-growing elderly population.

Although some disciplines have long-standing commitments to the extension function, there are no program areas. Local information specialists don't provide service to ongoing groups. They perform no organizational maintenance functions and view their role as responding to the numerous requests for information they receive.

Modified Issues Scenario

Community-based Extension staff cooperatively develop issues priorities across program area lines. Although program areas are maintained, they're weak administrative structures. The real power in the organization rests with issues teams. These teams are headed by generalist adult educators who organize resources and deliver a complete teaching package within a nine-to- twelve- month time frame. Issues teams draw members from campus staff with flexible appointments, short-term hires, and a core staff of Extension specialists.

Flexible hiring is achieved by keeping funds at the college or school level rather than the department level. Funds can be moved for shorter-term commitments to high-need areas. Short-term hires, including graduate assistantships and visiting professorships, are important. Issues identified most frequently fall within traditional program area purview, although effort is made to develop educational programs that relate to issues outside of the traditional Cooperative Extension framework.

County-based staff teach programs in community settings and maintain strong linkages with local constituent groups. A state-organized and county-implemented planning system allows for efficient issues identification by making use of computer and telephone partylines for semiannual issues identification. Local control is important, and county staff continue educational roles with long-standing clientele while working to establish relationships with new clientele. New audiences are identified and targeted based on need in relationship to identified issues.

Counties are clustered into groups of six to eight counties for program specialization. County staff follow individually designed professional development plans based on their specialization. Counties form regional funding groups around the six-to-eight-county configuration and share resources making possible acquisition and use of higher cost technological advances. County staff are hired on two-year renewable contracts that allow for maximum flexibility to respond to emerging issues. In many cases, however, staff can contribute to more than one issue and remain in a county for extended periods of time.

Appropriate educational methodology is considered of critical importance. State-based staff work closely with adult education researchers to ensure that the delivery methods used are appropriate for the content and the audience. At-home and distance-learning delivery methods are used with increasing frequency.

Interactive Issues Scenario

Each county identifies a committee of local influentials who serve as a county-based statewide issues identification structure. Their four-year assignment is to review trends and concerns. Issues identified are fed into statewide computer databases and statewide partylines allow for discussion with campus faculty, influentials, and county staff on an ongoing basis.

Each county is part of a stratified random sample of households that serve as a continuing data source for campus-based researchers and Extension staff. These households, or appropriate subsets, are surveyed quarterly by telephone and are an ongoing and constantly changing database on emerging issues and trends. When an emergency occurs, such as forest fires or drought, an emergency survey is conducted to update the campus specialists on local conditions and educational needs. Decisions about what questions are included in the survey are made by the issues steering committee comprised of local influentials, campus-, and county-based staff.

Household survey data are fed into computer files and made available to campus-based faculty who contribute to Extension work. This database provides such a strong incentive to contribute to the extension function that many campus-based faculty contribute without additional remuneration. At the local level, the database provides communities with up-to-the-minute data about their own community and the state. Field staff make extensive use of the data with local publics and find the databases contribution to community problem solving invaluable.

Issues teams are assembled to design and develop educational programs and resource materials for county programs. The design teams are expected to develop materials in a six-month time frame. Issues teams are interdisciplinary and program delivery is an important component of the process. Using the household surveys, it's relatively easy to assess the effectiveness of delivery methodology. This information prompts targeting methods and resources to more effectively meet the educational needs of learners. Issues leaders replace the program leaders who were part of the administrative structure in the early 1990s.

At the local level, staff are hired with backgrounds that blend subject matter with educational delivery. Program content changes frequently, but because local staff are generalists rather than specialists, they can serve in the same area even when issues change. Emphasis at the local level is placed on program delivery, and maintenance relationships to long-term groups don't exist. Local staff teach programs and facilitate learning in a variety of ways appropriate to the content and learner. Program emphasis that requires narrow specialization is conducted with campus-based specialists who participate by video or other mediated approach, or occasionally in person.

Local Specialization Scenario

Statewide priorities are identified through program area planning groups. They are fed into an informal criteria setting system that allows for statewide priorities to be identified through group concerns. Each program area identifies no more than three issues at a time. These priorities are distributed to field staff and, with specialist help, programs are offered throughout the state.

State staff work within program area boundaries and may work on more than one priority at a time. Program areas are strong autonomous units, although they work together on specific programs. County staff frequently carry responsibility for more than one program area and are being hired with a narrow area of specialization that intersects two program areas. They then teach in those narrow areas of expertise. At the local level, county staff share their expertise across county lines and become quite specialized. Limited state resources require that a narrow set of priorities be identified for specialists. This leads to fewer state programs being developed than in the past. Emphasis is placed on maintaining high quality programs even when the quantity of programming is reduced.

Traditional clientele are served with the constricted local staff and these traditional clientele are fiercely loyal to Cooperative Extension. Counties increase their commitment to financing local salaries. A frequent staffing pattern is a state-employed county staff member with a master's degree and one more county employee who has a bachelor's degree. In some counties, paraprofessionals complement the professional staff. Counties will eventually fund three-fourths or more of all local positions. The locally funded positions are extremely responsive to local concerns and perform advisory functions with longstanding groups freeing the state employed person from that role.

State-based specialists continue to be placed in university departments that have longstanding Extension traditions. The extension function is viewed as important, but less prestigious than research. Because of continuing constriction of resources, and the increase of county funds, the district supervisor's role changes to include more program development and fewer administrative functions.

State influence over local programming diminishes in direct relationship to the amount of local financial control.


Only time will tell which scenario, if any, captures the future of the Cooperative Extension. Will it be an emphasis on the information specialist? A modified issues scenario? An interactive issues approach? An emphasis on local specialization? Or some combination? Only time will tell. But each Extension professional has a role in determining what the future reality will be.


1. Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality (Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1987), p. 7.

2. Ibid., p. 8.