Fall 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Who Participates...and Why?

Planning ahead to influence the decision of others isn't new in Extension. We do it all the time with clients. This study has shown that if Extension wants to influence the development of specific programs at the local level, planning to affect faculty decisions may be more critical than providing detailed plans for how to implement programs.

Dale R. Miller
Extension Agriculturist/Director
Marion County
Iowa State University-Knoxville

M. F. Smith
Associate Professor and Coordinator
Program Planning and Evaluation
Staff Development
University of Maryland-College Park

Issues have been defined as matters of wide public concern arising out of complex human problems.1 Once an issue is selected as an Extension priority, how can the decision to do an issues- based program be predicted? What events or actions must occur to influence an Extension agent's decision to participate in an interdisciplinary issues-based program?

A study of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service (CES) Water Quality/Quantity pilot program provided insight into the factors influencing this decision-making process. This article briefly describes the study and reports on those factors and events that had the strongest influence on the decision-making process.

The Study

Water quality/quantity was selected as a high priority issue by the Maryland CES in 1986. Shortly thereafter, the Water Impact Team (WIT)-a team of state and county faculty representing five disciplines-began developing an interdisciplinary water program. The result was a model of events and actions considered essential for influencing a county faculty's choice to implement the water pilot program (see Figure 1). The model included pre-county events or actions necessary for the occurrence and influence of subsequent county events. Each event in the model was defined by specific actions. For example, one activity in Event 2 was a personal letter from the Extension director to each member of the team documenting the importance of the issue for Extension and the commitment of resources; Event 5 included six activities in preparation for the presentation to county faculty.

Figure 1. County faculty model.

The purpose of the study was to verify the model of events, improve the water program, and more accurately predict and affect decision making in future issues-based programs. Verification was accomplished by: (1) documenting the occurrence of each event and (2) analyzing the influence of each event on individual faculty members' decisions to implement (or not implement) the program. For example, during the one-on-one interviews, faculty were asked: "Did the WIT define expectations for county faculty participation in the pilot study (Event 5)? If YES, did that influence your decision to participate (or not)? If YES, what about that influenced you-positively or negatively?"

Faculty from three counties were interviewed. One county was actively involved in implementation of the program, one had just collected needs assessment data, and one had chosen not to participate.

Influences on County Staff Decisions

The interview data revealed that each event in the model did occur and each influenced individual faculty members' decision about participation. Within the events, seven specific actions were more influential than others-four had high influence (identified by more than 70% of respondents) and three had medium influence (50%-70% of respondents). These influencers, in order of decreasing degree of influence, were:

  • Clarity of program presentation by Water Impact Team (Event 7): The more the agents felt they understood the program, the more likely they were to "buy-in."

  • Availability of specific organizational resources (Events 6 and 8): Agents were positively influenced when resources were made available for this program; lack of support from any level of administration was a strong negative influence.

  • Choice in the decision to participate (Event 7): Agents who believed they had a choice, felt a positive influence; without this belief, there was a strong negative influence.

  • Program fits job description/work plan (Event 7): Agents were more likely to participate if they could see a clear fit of the water program with their job description/work plan.

  • Purpose/goal of the water program (Event 7): The social significance of the program goals exerted a positive influence on decisions to participate.

  • Team approach to programming (Events 5, 7, and 10): Some agents were positively influenced by the opportunity to work as an interdisciplinary team member and as part of a county/state program team with a common goal.

  • Time requirement (Events 7 and 10): Lack of time was primarily a negative influence for many (for example, the initial time required for a sound assessment of local needs plus the time for cooperative planning).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The results show that changing the actions of some events could elicit even greater influence. These events and recommendations for improved effectiveness are:

  • Administration Communicates Expectations and Support (Event 6). This event occurred before the WIT presented details of the program (Event 7), which was an important sequence. However, not all members of administration fully supported the pilot program. It was clear for some agents that support was definite from the highest level of administration and this was a positive influence. Second-level administrative support wasn't evident, which clearly had a negative influence. Recommendation: A total commitment from all levels of administration should increase positive feedback and eliminate the confusion of "mixed signals" from administration.

  • Team Presents Program Expectations and "Sells" to County Faculty (Event 7). These actions were critical to decision making by faculty as evidenced by the previous list of specific influencers. Recommendation: The team should place more emphasis on telling the whole story in joint county and state meetings and deliver a complete, informative presentation. Presenters shouldn't assume prior reading of preliminary documents and correspondence by county faculty before the initial presentation.

  • Administration Provides Rewards and Feedback on Performance (Event 8). This event was a strong influencer for agents seeking evaluation of their work. However, evidence shows they didn't know how their participation in the program would affect their performance appraisal. This uncertainty points to the lack of clearly defined criteria for the appraisal of individual and group/team performance. Recommendation: Develop contingency-based performance criteria for individuals and teams (for example, appraisals would depend on accomplishment of work/program goals) as part of the interdisciplinary issues-based program. These criteria would be described during the program presentation and include the means for clearly recognizing and quickly rewarding county faculty.

  • County Faculty Assess Situation and Identify Specific Needs (Event 10). Successful completion of this event required a comprehensive program needs assessment. The WIT provided detailed instructions for this effort. Local input from community and organizational leaders provided critical learning for county faculty and reinforcement for their decisions. When the needs assessment wasn't completed, county faculty were more likely to decide not to participate. Recommendation: Completion of the local needs assessment should be a requirement, rather than an option, for program participation.

  • Team Provides Training and Technical Assistance (Event 9). This event was an influencer on county faculty decision making. Even though it was offered, those who chose not to ask for training felt they weren't adequately prepared for completing some tasks (for example, the needs assessment). Recommendation: Training and help should be provided for county faculty as an integral part of program development-with the understanding it's an expectation rather than an option for participation.

One overlooked factor in the successful influence of events is allowing enough time for the actions to affect decision making. Each event's influence must fully develop before proceeding to the next event in the model.

Planning ahead to influence the decision of others isn't new in Extension. We do it all the time with clients. This study has shown that if Extension wants to influence the development of specific programs at the local level, planning to affect faculty decisions may be more critical than providing detailed plans for how to implement programs.


1. U.S., Department of Agriculture, Extension Service, Issues Programing in Extension (Washington, D.C.: Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) and Minnesota Extension Service, 1988).