Summer 1990 // Volume 28 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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Issues Programming Changes Extension


Ellen Taylor-Powell
Former Extension Program Specialist
Program and Staff Development
Texas Agricultural Extension Service
Texas A & M University System-College Station

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

The Cooperative Extension System is being challenged to adapt to a changing world - a complex world in which yesterday's answers and tools don't seem to solve today's problems. Issues programming is the approach proposed for moving Extension into the 21st century. It involves a refocusing on the broad societal concerns of people.1 Much time and attention is being given to identifying issues, setting up interdisciplinary teams, and organizing educational resources to program around issues. Expectations are great. Yet, the questions being asked by many are: "Is issues programming anything new?" "Does anything change when one moves to issues programming?"

The indication from a staff survey recently conducted by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service is "yes." Undertaken as a mid-term assessment of progress in this programming approach, the findings indicate types of changes Extension staff are experiencing in the move to issues programming.

Identifying Issues

During the early 1980s, the Texas Agricultural Extension Service faced a rapid downswing in the agricultural and oil-based economy and a declining population growth rate. To ensure that programs were relevant under these conditions, Texas Extension initiated a new long-range program planning process in 1986. The objective was to reach outside the Extension structure to involve a wide populace in identifying priority issues as the basis for program delivery into the 1990s. To accomplish this, various steps were taken: (1) study group meetings were held in each of the 254 counties involving a wide spectrum of county leaders to identify local issues of critical importance, (2) a 1987-1990 long-range Extension program was developed in each county based on the identified issues, (3) issues were categorized into 12 broad statewide issues to direct the state plan of action, (4) a program management structure was created of interdisciplinary program development committees and issues coordinators for each of the 12 issues, and (5) program guides including core curriculum and educational strategies for each issue were provided to counties.2

Initiating issues-based programming, however, would be meaningless if corresponding changes in attitudes, actions, and allocation of resources weren't made. The key would be effectively implementing issues-based programming to have an impact on the identified issues. To monitor progress, an interim evaluation of issues-based programming was undertaken in early 1988 to identify successes, obstacles, and improvements needed.

Survey of Staff Members

We surveyed 441 staff by mail based on random samples of county Extension agents and specialists, plus all district Extension directors, issues coordinator (specialists coordinating issues work), and project supervisors. Questionnaires relevant to each staff position were used to solicit a variety of open- and close-ended responses. The response rate was 92%. Selected findings indicate the types of changes occurring within Texas Extension since the initiation of issues programming.

Staff Understanding of Issues Programming

To the question "What does issues-based programming mean to you?" the majority of the staff members related issues programming to the planning aspect of the program development process. Issues programming was associated with grassroots needs assessment and building programs based on externally identified needs. Fewer staff members mentioned aspects of implementation and evaluation, though some used descriptive phrases like "multi-resource programming," "integration of disciplines," "flexible personnel management," and "evaluation of issue improvement rather than narrow, subject-matter evaluation."

As might be expected, some staff members gave no distinctive meaning to issues programming or stated that issues programming was what they'd always done. These findings indicate some varying perceptions with the primary association of issues programming with planning and less recognition of the implementation and evaluation processes unique to issues programming.

Changes Reported

At the time this mid-term assessment was undertaken, changes were expected to be occurring in job roles, organization of resources, audiences being reached, delivery methods used, and the county Extension program council structure. The findings showed changes in all these areas, though variation existed among staff positions. For example, of the 61% of the Texas staff who reported changes in their jobs, the greatest was among district directors (80%), followed by county agents (70%), and project supervisors (58%). The smallest percentage indicating change in job roles was among specialists (44%). By program area, the community development and 4-H staff members indicated the greatest changes in jobs (86% and 85%, respectively), followed by home economics (69%), and agricultural/natural resource staff members (52%).

The types of changes Extension staff mentioned most frequently were increased time and effort spent coordinating with others (inside and outside Extension), focusing work on the identified issues, promoting programs, and conducting multicounty programs. County agents most frequently stated that their work was more focused-targeting audiences with specific information and moving away from the "shotgun/all-things-to-all-people" approach. Agents also mentioned that their work was more responsive to county concerns. Many said the participation of a wide county populace in identifying issues had strengthened and revitalized the county program. This led to more and different people being involved in planning and implementation.

For specialists, the most frequently mentioned change was in their approach to problems, especially greater involvement with other specialists and more team programming. Secondly, specialists noted changes in the focus and direction of their work-for example, requests from county agents for more specific program ideas, more focus and prioritization in their work, more in-depth work, and changes in subject-matter orientation.

Eighty-one percent of the county agents and 45% of the specialists reported working with new or different audiences since the initiation of issues programming in 1987. Also, more than 80% of the county agents reported changes in the county Extension program councils. Most frequently, council membership was changed to include individuals with knowledge or expertise in a specific issue. Secondly, issues-related county task forces had been initiated.

The least change was found in educational methods and techniques being used to conduct issues-based programs. A few staff members mentioned increased intensity in program delivery and stated that they were now combining multiple methods and expertise as well as emphasizing learner participation and hands-on applications. The findings indicated a need for continued work in developing innovative audience-appropriate techniques, sequencing learner experiences for impact, and applying new electronic and communication technologies in program delivery.

Issues Coordination

Lack of time to coordinate statewide issues work emerged as a common concern among issues coordinators. Nine of the 12 coordinators reported spending less than 10% of their monthly work time in this role. Likewise, commitment, cooperation, and direction within the interdisciplinary program development committees varied, which affected performance levels. Staff members provided various recommendations for facilitating statewide issues work:

  • Formalize communication channels by issue.
  • Increase uniformity in understanding and implementing issues programming.
  • Reconsider interdisciplinary committee composition.
  • Allocate time for issues work.
  • Reward staff members for time and contribution to issues committee work.

Staff Development Needs

Sixty-three percent of the staff members reported having problems carrying out programs based on issues. For all, making complex issues manageable was the foremost problem. County agents and issues coordinators listed lack of time as the major problem in trying to combine issues work with ongoing responsibilities. Inadequate resources was considered a major problem by project supervisors and issues coordinators. The four top-ranked topics for inservice education were: (1) turning complex issues into programs, (2) innovative program delivery methods, (3) building teams, and (4) evaluating issues impact.


Many significant changes were found in job roles and programming strategy as a result of the move by Texas Extension to issues-based programming. The process begun in 1985-86 was the first statewide issues identification process in Texas Extension history. It resulted in a broader base of support for Extension programs, involvement of nontraditional clientele, ownership of programs at the county level, the development of a statewide plan of work based on locally identified concerns, and a highly visible marketing tool for Extension. Based on the identified issues, Extension programs have become more focused and targeted. New areas of programming have been identified. Subject-matter areas no longer relevant have been redefined to fit new needs. Networking with external groups has increased as has staff collaboration internally.

This study also reveals significant difficulties experienced by staff in this transition. It only begins to explore the benefits and struggles that may occur with issues-based programming. More time and further study will be needed to further monitor the impacts of issues programming both within and outside Extension. It's clear, however, that no cookbook answers exist for doing issues programming. We're learning as we proceed. Involving a broad base of staff through a formative evaluation study such as this served to build commitment and capitalized on the organization's collective expertise in working towards effective implementation of this organizational change.


1. Kathleen Dalgaard and others, Issues Programming in Extension (St. Paul: Minnesota Extension Service and Extension Service, United States Department of Agriculture, 1988).

2. Burl Richardson and Howard Ladewig, An Assessment of Extension's Long-Range Planning Process: Programming into the '90s (College Station: Texas Agricultural Extension Service, 1987) and Burl Richardson and Howard Ladewig, "Let the People Speak," Journal of Extension, XXVII (Winter 1989), 15-17.