Spring 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 1 // To The Point // 1TP1

Issue Contents Previous Article

Extension in Transition: Review and Renewal


Myron D. Johnsrud
Administrator, Extension Service,
USDA, Washington, D.C.

Roy S. Rauschkolb
Director, Cooperative
Extension Service
University of Arizona-Tucson

Changes, prompted by review and renewal, are constant currents within today's Cooperative Extension System. These changes are positive signs of a dynamic organization experiencing transition and rebirth.

External reviews and comments often prompt organizations to heighten the intensity and scope of their renewal efforts. Since the early 1980s, the Cooperative Extension System has experienced several unsolicited external reviews and some self-directed internal reviews and commentaries. Among these were the Office of Technology Office Assessment report on the Cooperative Extension System, the Donald Lambro article published by Reader's Digest, the Extension in the 80s Task Force and report, and the recent ECOP-commissioned Futures Task Force study. These and other commentaries, articles, and projections collectively became forces for change within Extension.

One critical theme pervades all these critiques - the challenge to better define our relevance, mission, priorities, and capabilities. Significant challenges for any organization, this recurring theme sounded a warning to the system. Yet, many of these concerns and recommendations came because people and organizations care enough about the Cooperative Extension System to offer constructive criticisms and suggested changes.

We responded proactively to these critiques by implementing several program and organizational changes during the past two years. These include issues-based programming, focus on nationwide and statewide critical priorities through National Initiatives, multi- and interdisciplinary program leadership, and redefined mission and functions for both Extension Service-USDA and the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP).

These changes challenge each of us to reconsider how to best apply our abilities and responsibilities. They signal that it's certainly not business-as-usual for Extension. But, it's an exciting time for those of us who thrive on risk-taking in achieving goals and results. The payoff for all is a stronger, more proactive, relevant, and responsive Extension System.

During this process of review and renewal, several people have referred to the National Initiatives as a "top-down" effort. In reality, the National Initiatives are a total system team effort with state and federal partners working together from concept to adoption.

The development of the National Initiatives began as a response to those forces of change mentioned earlier. In the early 1980s, ECOP and ES-USDA initiated the development of a series of issue-focused papers: 4-H in Century III, Regaining Farm Profitability in America, Groundwater Education, Food and Nutrition, and Revitalizing Rural America. At the same time, the ECOP Budget Subcommittee began to explore the importance of identifying significant national issues as a basis for pursuing federal funding for the Cooperative Extension System.

These various internal activities joined in a coordinated effort in 1986. At that time, ES-USDA and ECOP focused a three-pronged approach in response to needed change:

  • Appointment of a Futures Task Force.
  • Identification of national program initiatives.
  • Appointment of an ECOP/ES-USDA National Initiatives Coordinating Committee and eight National Initiative teams to operationalize these initiatives.

The Coordinating Committee was charged with developing policy and guidelines, while the teams were to identify and develop the critical issues within each initiative area. Each team consisted of 10-15 Extension staff - one member from ES-USDA and the balance from state, area, and county staff. As they worked, these National Initiatives teams secured input from more than 200 citizens, organizations, associations, public officials, and existing databases. That's why the National Initiatives are called a total system team effort - with a lot of public input - definitely not just "top-down."

At the same time, another Extension group serving as a "think tank" focused on delivery, planning, and organization rather than the content of Extension programs. Called the Futures Task Force, this group held public hearings, reviewed many of the reports cited in this article, and drew on their talent as they examined the need for organizational and structural changes.

The information gathered by this task force reinforced previous external reviews and articles. Don Paarlberg, former U.S. assistant secretary of agriculture, typified the tenor of these hearings when he said it was time to examine our organization: "I doubt whether increased lobbying efforts will significantly increase available funds - the public is trying to tell us something and we would do well to listen."

Listen we did. Action we are taking. Yet, it's difficult not to feel the sting of these seemingly critical remarks.

Marianne Houston, an Extension volunteer from New Hampshire, told the Futures Task Force: "Yes, the Extension Service has a proud tradition, but it's time to look realistically towards the future." Keith Bjerke, a farmer from North Dakota and member of the Research and Extension Users Advisory Board, reflected the feelings of many hearing witnesses: "I'm afraid that the time has already arrived when the innovative farmer no longer depends on his county Extension agent for timely information."

The challenge is unmistakable. The Cooperative Extension System must continue to signal its willingness, desire, and ability to undergo change to respond to national and local needs and issues. If we do less, we risk the public perceiving us as unresponsive and irrelevant. And, we relinquish our leadership role in off-campus education and problem solving.

Our constituency has spoken - and we have responded. Our response is found in several actions designed to more accurately focus our efforts:

  • Development of an issues programming model to implement the National Initiatives.
  • Adoption of a strategic planning process, including appointment of a council charged with anticipating new issues on the national agenda.
  • Development of a new Cooperative Extension System mission and a new directions statement.
  • Delineation of specific roles and responsibilities for ES-USDA and ECOP.
  • Identification of the functions of ECOP and design for a new structure to implement those functions.

These and other planned actions demonstrate Extension's resolve to provide excellence in programming relevant to the needs of our clientele and the critical concerns of the nation.

Gary King, W. K. Kellogg Foundation executive, summed up our challenge this way: "The dustbins of civilization have a great many organizations in them that have outlived their utility, that haven't changed with the times."

Our vision for Extension is bright and promising; there are no dustbins in this future. We challenge you to share this vision - and work with us to make that future a reality.