Winter 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA3

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Let the People Speak


Burl Richardson
Extension Program Development Specialist
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Texas A&M University System-College Station

Howard Ladewig
Extension Program Evaluation Specialist
and Program Leader for Program and Staff Development
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Texas A&M University System-College Station

Cooperative Extension has long been known as a problem-solving organization. It has also been recognized for its ability to adapt to meet the changing needs of the constituencies it's charged to serve. Recently, the agricultural component of this constituency has been affected by a drastic change in the marketplace and in the technology available to agriculture. As a consequence of this revolutionary change, Extension has expended great effort to shape its response and, according to two national committees, this must include issues programming.1

Dalgaard and others define an issue as "a matter of wide public concern arising out of complex human problems."2 They contend that issues programming will enhance Extension program relevance by involving a broad cross-section of the public in the identification of issues. They also discuss three principles of issue identification that will help ensure a credible process:

  1. The (environmental scanning) process should involve the broad public and the Extension organization in several interactions.
  2. All Extension staff members - agents, specialists, administrators - should participate in the process.
  3. Issue statements and categories shouldn't be couched in typical Extension terminology.

In 1986, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (TAEX) implemented issues-based programming in Texas. The principles followed in identifying the issues were similar to those listed above. In this article, we discuss how we implemented those principles and some reasons why we believe issues-based programming has been well-received by citizens and Extension staff.


In 1986, in response to a rapidly changing state population and economy, TAEX launched a statewide long-range planning effort entitled "Programming into the '90s." More than 12,000 citizens from many walks of life joined us in identifying and prioritizing the most critical issues facing Texans through 1990.

Why undertake such a challenging program initiative? The Texas population and economy experienced rapid change during the 1980s. From 1970 to 1984, the state's population increased by more than 4.7 million. Yet, the period from 1982 to 1984 brought a slowdown in Texas population growth.3

Oil and gas, the state's top income producing industry, experienced severe losses. Agriculture, second only to the state's oil and gas industry, and agribusiness were caught in a cost-price squeeze that reduced economic returns and profits to critical levels. Families and whole communities experienced financial difficulties.4

New Program Initiative

TAEX implemented the long-range planning process to better identify the needs of people affected by this rapidly changing society. Its overall purpose was four-fold:

  1. To identify needs, interests, and concerns as expressed by each county Extension Program Council.
  2. To identify socioeconomic trends and emerging problems determined by special community groups.
  3. To identify emerging knowledge and technology relevant to local problems and concerns.
  4. To identify local, statewide, and national interests and concerns expressed by Extension support groups, including legislative bodies, government agencies, organizations, and advisory groups.5

Process Developed

In 1985, staff groupings at state and district levels and some 250 key leaders at five regional level meetings were challenged to identify issues and circumstances being faced in their areas of Texas. Information from these meetings guided the formation of a resource packet for developing each county long-range Extension program (1987-1990). Two major items in the resource packet were a "10-step outline" for completing the long-range planning process and a "study guide" containing some 25 position papers on key areas of concern (issues). The resource packet was one major factor contributing to the success of the long-range planning effort. Another factor was a statewide training program for the 1,000-member TAEX staff involving training before and during the process.

Process Implemented

In 1986, county staffs and Extension Program Councils identified and invited between 40 and 60 key leaders in a county to participate in a study group meeting. In many counties, the county judge sent the letter of invitation. At the first meeting, the study group reviewed its purpose and challenge. Then it divided into four task forces - agriculture and natural resources, home economics, community development, and 4-H. Each task force met independently and identified and prioritized issues in its assigned area. Some task forces met as many as four times over the next several weeks to complete their assignments. Extension staff were facilitators in the issues identification process so the issues emerged from the participants themselves.

The four task forces within each county came together in June in a final study group meeting to hear individual task force reports. After an open discussion of all identified issues, the study group as a whole identified at least five, but not more than 10, issues it felt were the most critical county concerns.

Each Extension Program Council and Extension staff used the study group report as a basis for developing its 1987-1990 plan. The county reports were used to develop the state long-range plan and the supporting resources needed for issues-based programming.

County Study Group Meetings Results

Of the 18,400 key leaders invited to county study groups, almost 12,400, or 67%, attended. More than 75% of those invited weren't current members of county Extension Program Councils. The leaders included people from all walks of life (see Table 1).

Almost 5,000 county issues were identified by county study groups. A computer analysis helped us identify similarities in county issues that led to 12 broad categories or statewide issues toward which TAEX would channel its resources through the year 1990 (see Table 2). Because the National Initiatives are similar in content to the statewide issues, TAEX staff don't perceive National Initiatives as a top-down program.

Programming Resources Developed

To develop the state long-range plan and the supporting resources needed for issues programming, interdisciplinary program development committees were organized. Issue coordinators were identified to help coordinate efforts in developing a plan of action for addressing the issues. As a result, 12 Program Guides and accompanying slidetape presentations were developed to help counties with issues programming.

The follow-up statewide staff training project conducted during the first quarter of 1987 focused on implementing and evaluating the new plan. The concept of issues-based programming was introduced and new program resources were explained.

Table 1. County leaders nominated for study group participation.

Occupational category Number of
of total
Business/industry/labor 3,544 19%
Farmer/rancher 3,028 16
Education 2,062 11
Homemaker 1,875 10
Government (city, county, state, federal) 1,255 7
Agribusiness 1,245 7
Community organization 1,222 7
Financial institution 961 5
Other 946 5
Medical/health 696 4
Clergy 484 3
Volunteer leader 385 2
Mass media 383 2
Law enforcement 319 2
Total 18,405 100%

Table 2. Critical issues identified.

Statewide issue County issues
Youth development 920
Revitalization of rural Texas 602
Agricultural profitability and competitiveness 534
Strengthening Texas families 518
Economic development 338
Leadership development 326
Improving nutrition, diet, and health 321
Financial planning and management 289
Water quality and conservation 274
Marketing of agricultural and natural
resource products

Agricultural diversification 202
Rural/urban relationships 106


The value of grassroots involvement in priority setting has been increasingly challenged in recent years. Some authorities have questioned whether local citizens can objectively develop educational programs - whether they can identify issues and perceive the problems that affect them. Evidence from the TAEX long-range planning process confirms Hutchison's philosophy that "properly supported" grassroots involvement in priority setting does work,6 especially when Extension provides a meaningful framework for involvement. The grassroots approach involving leading citizens in the identification of critical county issues makes citizens aware of local conditions and potential solutions. It also provides the foundation through which the National Initiatives and county issues can come together.


1. Futures Task Force and National Priorities Policy Task Force appointed by Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP), 1986.

2. Issues Programming in Extension (St. Paul: USDA, ECOP, and the Minnesota Extension Service, 1988).

3. The Slowdown in Texas Population Growth: Post-1980 Population Change in Texas Counties (College Station: Texas A&M University System, Department of Rural Sociology, 1986.)

4. The Technology Development and Transfer Committee, Agricultural Technology: The Texas Agenda (Austin: The Texas Science and Technology Council, 1986).

5. Extension Program Development and Its Relationship to Extension Management Information Systems: A Report of the Program Development Ad Hoc Committee (Ames: Iowa State University, Cooperative Extension Service, 1974).

6. John E. Hutchison, Proceedings: Program Building Seminar (San Antonio: Texas Agricultural Extension Service, 1965).