Winter 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA5

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Educating Interest Groups for Political Action


Gerald Huebner
Agricultural Representative
Arborg, Manitoba Agriculture

Andrew T. Dickson
Regional Director
Interlake, Manitoba Agriculture

Extension is increasingly having to deal with special interest groups in agriculture as these groups seek support and action on various issues. These groups have learned that appealing to politicians is insufficient. They must also garner support within the public service sector to achieve desired outcomes in the policy setting arena.

Extension staff face the challenge of educating interest groups in the functioning of government and the policy-making process without seeming to create problems for our political masters to resolve. This article first discusses this challenge by examining the initiation and implementation of an agricultural drainage program in Manitoba. Then, we present some guidelines on how Extension workers can operate in such politically difficult situations.

The Context

Agricultural Extension in Manitoba is primarily delivered by Manitoba Agriculture, a provincial government department, headed by a Minister of the Crown. The department has 39 agricultural districts, each serviced by an agricultural representative and various specialist staff. The district staff have two main functions: (1) to deliver an agricultural Extension program to improve farmers' knowledge and skills based on local needs and (2) to act as a resource on various government programs and policies pertaining to agriculture.

The agricultural representative is not only expected to be a civil servant promoting the policies of the government, but also, to a limited extent, to express within the government system the interests of local farmers. Sometimes those interests and existing policies aren't necessarily in harmony. Staff have to be sensitive to producers' concerns, but also must ensure they've satisfactorily interpreted and explained government policies so clients fully understand the objectives and benefits of various programs. This is different from the Extension Service operated through the land-grant university system.

Due to fiscal restraints, government is being forced to prioritize all expenditures and restrict activities. In Manitoba, the land drainage system services about half the major agricultural area of the province. It's estimated that about 60% of the current provincial drains require reconstruction to conform to modern standards at an estimated cost of $130 million. Current provincial expenditures for upgrading and new drainage infrastructure are slightly under $1 million. With more than two-thirds of provincial expenditures committed to health, social security, and education programs, and a limited tax field, there's little flexibility to increase capital expenditures.

The Issue

A group of farmers in the Riverton area (about 120 kilometres north of Winnipeg) tried to get the provincial government to upgrade the local drainage system. The area is about 540,000 hectares, served by more than 300 kilometres of drains. The area was originally opened for development after 1945, and about 120 farm families of Mennonite and Icelandic descent now operate various enterprises (small grains, turkeys, forage seeds, beef cattle, dairy, and hogs). Each year since 1980, the watershed suffered from repeated flooding or unusually wet conditions - ruining crops, flooding farmsteads, and creating almost impassable field conditions. Although these problems can be attributed to abnormal precipitation, the difficulties have been compounded by an inadequate drainage system put in place 40 years ago.

Studying the Problem

As the financial and production crisis worsened, influential farmers, working through the rural municipality, made a presentation to the Provincial Cabinet in the Spring of 1983 with the help of the agricultural representative. They'd made some initial contacts with the Minister of Agriculture, whose district included the Riverton area, so there would be no surprises. In response, a detailed survey and study of the area was ordered. A total of $2 million was allocated in 1983 under a federal - provincial agricultural development agreement, pending the drainage report. In 1984, the federal and provincial governments paid out more than $750,000 in emergency flood damage assistance. Crop insurance payouts have amounted to about $1 million, but fewer than 25% of the farmers are enrolled in the program. Although helpful, these programs didn't address the underlying problem. In December 1985, the drainage report recommended a $6.2 million upgrading program that would take about seven years to complete.

The preparation of the drainage report took considerably longer than initially expected. Local staff of the two departments worked closely together to move the project through the government system. The policy direction had been set by the cabinet, but only limited staff resources were available to carry out the preliminary surveys and prepare initial design requirements. This was a frustrating period, especially in 1985, when harvesting conditions were generally appalling due to heavy rains and swamp-like fields. District staff could only answer appeals for action with the cliche "the problems are being studied."

To better coordinate and direct the concerns of affected producers, a soil and water management committee was set up, recruiting community leaders who could represent various interests with authority and respect. The group served as a communication vehicle for staff, elected officials, and local farmers. This helped forestall criticism, and ensured that frustration could be expressed in an open forum. Staff obtained some funding for various short-term soil management projects that demonstrated the benefits of recommended practices and showed the productivity potential of the area. The Provincial Premier announced the funding for this new group at a meeting with local councillors and farmers before the provincial election in February 1986, and specifically announced initial funding of $2 million for the drainage project.

In early 1986, a request to the cabinet for funding to proceed was deferred until staff had contacted the federal government to see if they'd be interested in joint funding of the project. This proved fruitless and by Fall it was too late to undertake any construction. The group was told no work would be undertaken in 1986, and possibly not in 1987 either. They reacted by following the political route and meeting with the Premier and the respective ministers to demand some response. Some of the committee members had ties within the political system that ensured their voice would be heard.

Following this lobbying effort, the cabinet approved funding of almost $4 million in the Spring of 1987 and an agreement was signed with the Rural Municipality in July at a public ceremony. However, no work was undertaken until a new agreement was signed with a new government in August 1988. The group and the local council have helped deflect criticism from farmers whose drains won't be improved and the group will remain active as the process unfolds.


Here are some lessons we've learned from developing this project that could be used as guidelines for other Extension workers:

  1. Staff can't assume that local leaders either understand the policy-making process or have the knowledge and skills to play their role effectively. In this project, staff identified this as a priority problem requiring urgent attention. Considerable time was spent with individual leaders and groups to develop their abilities in this process.

  2. Staff must be able to express clearly and forcefully the position of government; the clientele must be able to comprehend the complexity of decisions and their ramifications. Staff found that many of the group's initial expectations were unrealistic. Time was required to develop a collective position on needs and possible solutions.

  3. District staff should be prepared to take a lead role in developing solutions in cooperation with other departments. Excellent liaison skills are essential. Staff found conflicting objectives amongst the key agencies, and these had to be resolved before solutions could be developed.

  4. Interest groups need help in developing the internal group dynamics that will garner support and action; they can't present divergent viewpoints, especially in group discussions with decision makers. There must be unity and harmony when pressing their points.

  5. Interest groups often lack negotiating skills, and they should recruit skilled negotiators at an early stage. The group was able to recruit a seasoned leader who had no previous interest in the problem. There was a marked improvement in progress with this change.

  6. Ultimate success is a matching of preparation and windows of opportunity to influence decision makers; groups need help in recognizing these windows and exploiting them. Staff played a key role in advising the group on the timing and appropriateness of certain actions.

  7. Groups need to understand that a favorable response requires a quid pro quo; governments expect some recognition for the resources being provided and a share of responsibility for the compromises reached. The group has strongly defended controversial decisions reached and has suffered some personal criticism.

  8. Frontline staff need encouragement and support from their peer groups and management, especially during those periods when client criticism is at its highest and action to address the issues seems distant and irrelevant. Extension administrators should be aware that this frustration can spill over into other parts of the Extension program. Staff credibility can be hurt by their seeming inability to address real issues.


We hope the above discussion has raised some concerns about the direction of Extension. Agriculture is a mature industry and depends heavily on government support. As other sectors of society increase their demands for government resources and services, farmers can no longer expect government to spontaneously address their particular concerns. Lobbying by a host of special interest groups is becoming the norm. To ensure that the decision-making process of government can continue to function effectively and efficiently, Extension workers can play a key role in helping these groups learn the skills and knowledge that are key to success. Elected officials are swamped with demands, and they appreciate groups that are well-organized, capable of expressing their needs with clarity and directness, and are able to negotiate a reasonable settlement of the issue.