Spring 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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Issues-Oriented Public Policy Education


Alan J. Hahn
Associate Professor
Department of Human Service Studies
New York College of Human Ecology
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Effective public policy education spurs the new issues-oriented approach to Extension education as shown in the Cooperative Extension System's National Initiatives. By public policy education, I mean educational programs where people learn about public issues, policy-making processes, and opportunities for involvement and influence.1

Such education has two principal objectives - one at the individual level, the other at the community level. The first is to provide people with knowledge and skills necessary for effective participation in public affairs; the second is to contribute to the effective and equitable resolution of pressing public issues and concerns.

To implement successful issues-oriented public policy education, agents and specialists need to do three things:

  • Address audiences at three levels.
  • Help people and communities move through the policy-making process.
  • Provide a combination of technical information and process help.

Let's look briefly at each of these steps.

Audiences at Three Levels

The first step addresses audiences at three levels:

  • Individuals and families.
  • Agencies, business firms, interest groups, and other organizations.
  • Government.

We also need to help audiences at each of these levels learn about the other levels. This is important because public issues and concerns can hardly ever be resolved through action on only one level. The ability of individuals and families to accomplish goals or solve problems is affected by the policies of organizations and governments. At the same time effective action by policy makers at the organizational and governmental levels requires input and support from a knowledgeable citizenry.

Figure 1 provides a framework for identifying audiences for public policy education programs.2 Use of the framework can be illustrated with the initiative of "Revitalizing Rural America." A comprehensive educational program in a community with high unemployment might include:

Figure 1. Audiences for public policy education programs.

  • Education for individuals and families on starting a business or coping with financial difficulty (cell 1A in Figure 1).
  • Education for existing business firms on "financial management" or "alternative economics opportunities" (cell 2B).
  • Education for local government officials on "community economic analysis" or "creation and operation of governmental programs for retaining and expanding local economic activity" (cell 3C).

Individuals and families, in addition to learning about their own situations, could also learn about policies and issues at the organizational and governmental levels. For example, people interested in starting a new business could learn about help available from various agencies (cell 1B) and about relevant government regulations (cell 1C). They could also learn how organizations (cell 1B) and governments (cell 1C) make policy decisions and how such decisions can be influenced.

Audiences at the organizational and governmental levels can also benefit from learning about levels other than their own. Existing business firms interested in alternative economic opportunities could learn about changing consumer preferences (cell 2A). They could also learn about governmental programs and regulations and how policy decisions are made and influenced in government (cell 2C). Similarly, local government officials could increase their understanding of problems confronting people trying to start a new business (cell 3A) or learn about the problems and needs of existing business firms (cell 3B).

These ways, shared understanding can be developed about conditions and needs at each of the levels. By promoting citizens' as well as policy makers' knowledge of public issues, and facilitating changes in public policy as well as individual and family behavior, the impact of our educational programs can be increased.

Model for Public Policy Education

The second step of issues-oriented public policy education provides help for people and communities in moving through the policy-making process. The public policy education model (Figure 2) is an excellent tool for planning, conducting, and evaluating educational programs that move issues toward resolution.3 The model calls attention to eight stages in the policy-making process and suggests appropriate educational interventions for each stage.

Figure 2. Public policy education model.

Stage 1 in a rural revitalization issue might begin with a local plant closing. Educational activities could be designed to help clarify impacts on different segments of the community, discuss people's concerns, and investigate underlying causes. In Stage 2, educators can help concerned individuals identify additional people who should be involved, including appropriate decision makers and other affected or interested parties. In the example, these might include laid-off workers, plant management, union representatives, human service agencies, the Chamber of Commerce, and local officials.

In Stage 3, educators can help participants decide on specific goals, such as keeping the plant open, diversifying the local economy, or strengthening the capacity of human service agencies. They can also help participants understand likely points of disagreement and call enough attention to the issue to "get it on the agenda." In Stage 4, educators can help identify and generate alternative means of pursuing the chosen goals (for example, tax breaks, technical help, or employee ownership as alternatives for keeping the plant open). In Stage 5, educators can help participants predict and evaluate the likely consequences of each alternative.

In Stage 6, educators can help participants understand who will make the relevant decisions (for example, plant management, agency directors, local elected officials). They can also help participants learn what factors are likely to be influential and how to develop strategies for effective involvement. In Stage 7, educators can help inform people of the decision and facilitate effective implementation. In Stage 8, they can help participants monitor the new policy and understand the results of formal evaluations.

The process is often complicated by the fact that different participants are in different stages at the same time. Business leaders and government officials may be deciding on a particular alternative, while potentially interested citizens are still clarifying their concerns. An important challenge for the educator may be to encourage some participants to slow down, while others are helped to catch up. The public policy education model can be useful in deciding what educational objectives are appropriate at a given time and when it's time to move on to a new set of educational activities appropriate to the next stage. The model can also help determine whether progress is being made toward issue resolution, even if a final decision is still a long way in the future.

Role of Technical Help

The third step of issues-oriented public policy education is the ability to integrate technical information and process help. Audiences at all three levels may need technical information about the issue in question. On the plant closing issue, contributions can be made by subject-matter specialists in economic development, management, human services, and public finance. They can help people understand existing conditions, document problems, identify alternative solutions, estimate the likely consequences, and judge the feasibility of different alternatives. Such specialists can also share knowledge and insight on the identity and behavior of key decision makers and other important participants.

Public policy education also requires process help. Participants need skills in leadership and group dynamics. They need to know how to create and manage organizations, carry out their own research on issues and alternatives, understand the political process, and know how to design effective political strategies. They may also need skills in negotiation, mediation, or conflict management.

Although many Extension agents already serve as both information providers and process facilitators, great opportunities exist for increased collaboration at the specialist level. Subject-matter specialists are often knowledgeable about policy issues and the identity of decision makers and other key participants in their areas of expertise. However, they may need help in reformatting their work to highlight policy issues and enable audiences to increase their understanding of the political process (not just their technical comprehension of the issue).

Process specialists in leadership and community development can be helpful in this regard, but may also need to reconceptualize their work. In my view, they should deemphasize "generic" leadership and community development programs that may attract limited audiences in favor of increased collaboration with subject-matter specialists. The objective of such collaboration would be providing process help directly to people interested in specific issues.


In summary, issues-oriented public policy education needs to target audiences at three levels, help people and communities move through the policy-making process, and combine technical information and process help. Such education can enable Extension to contribute to the resolution of public issues. It can also promote the more general objective of increasing the citizenry's knowledge of public issues and ability to participate effectively in public policy making.

Although providing such education will demand adjustments in our work, there will be ample compensation. Issues-oriented public policy education offers the challenge of working with new audiences and colleagues, as well as acquiring new knowledge and skills, and, above all, the possibility of increasing the impact of our programs.


1. See, Richard Barrows, Public Policy Education (Ames: Iowa State University, North Central Regional Extension, no date) and Verne W. House, Shaping Public Policy: The Educator's Role (Bozeman, Montana: Westridge Publishing, 1981).

2. Alan J. Hahn, "A Worksheet for Planning a Comprehensive Educational Program on Community Issues or Problems" (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1986).

3. Verne W. House, "Methods for Policy Education," in Working with Our Publics-Module 6: Education for Public Decisions (Raleigh: North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service, 1988) and Alan J. Hahn, "Resolving Public Issues and Concerns Through Policy Education" (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Cooperative Extension, 1988).