Fall 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA8

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Controversial Issues as Opportunities

The CES can make a major contribution to the resolution of environmental disputes in this country if we choose to do so. Quite a few faculty already have the education, skills, and vision to be effective in this arena. Many others, with additional training, would probably be more willing to take calculated risks and devote sustained effort in this direction. We have the potential. Are we ready to take the risk and make the commitment?

Emmett P. Fiske
Organizational Effectiveness Specialist
Cooperative Extension
Department of Rural Sociology
Washington State University-Pullman

As the "decade of the environment" begins reshaping existing agricultural and natural resource policies and practices, Extension's challenge is to choose a role to play at local, regional, and state levels. Will controversy cause us to shrink to the sidelines, or will we seize this as an opportunity to demonstrate our effectiveness in working with the public to resolve pressing problems?

The pressure of drastically reduced budgets has led us to redirect our efforts toward "issues-based programming," "target initiatives," and "interdisciplinary teams." During this changing time, does it make sense to initiate educational programs with nontraditional audiences whose perspectives often clash with those of existing clientele? Can we work with groups on different sides of an issue without alienating ourselves from traditional clientele? Yes-if we choose to follow a group effectiveness model for consensus-based decision making.

The Model

The essence of Extension education is its reliance on solid information and purposeful processes to produce clear and meaningful outcomes for those we serve. Our products-whether they be increased understanding of issues, enhanced communication, improved practices, or helping people implement change-try to better the human condition.

Hackman's group effectiveness model2 is useful for educational programs where there's conflict, because it focuses equal attention on three distinct elements:

  • Personal needs. The degree to which the group experience contributes to the growth and personal well-being of its members.

  • Interpersonal relationships. The degree to which the process of carrying out the work enhances member capacity to work together interdependently in the future.

  • Acceptable products. The degree to which the group's productive output meets the standards of quantity, quality, and timeliness of the people who receive, review, and/or use that output.

In other words:

Group effectiveness = personal needs + interpersonal relationships + acceptable products
                         [people]              [process]                 [products]

The model requires the facilitator not treat any element of the equation in isolation, nor that any one element receive more attention than the others. This is done by starting at the level of the individual3 and proceeding sequentially. The model weaves individual concerns and ideas into a cohesive group fabric specifying the criteria through which effectiveness can be measured. The following case study describes how, during March 15 -November 15, 1989, Extension successfully tested the model in Washington State.

The Russian Wheat Aphid Pilot Project

The Situation

Since its initial sighting in Texas in 1986, the Russian wheat aphid (RWA) has spread rapidly throughout the western wheat producing states. The toxins released by RWAs into the cereals they feed on cause stunting and death. By 1988, annual grain losses and associated costs had climbed to nearly $100 million, with Washington experiencing significant crop losses.4

Since biological control was three to six years away and integrated pest management was just getting started, the majority of Washington growers opted to use aerially applied organophosphate insecticides to counter this threat to their livelihoods. The insecticide of choice, disulfoton, killed the RWA by interfering with normal nervous system functioning.

While aerial application had grower support, it raised serious questions within the nonagricultural community concerned about chemical drift onto residences, waterways, and wetlands, and the impact of exposure on people and wildlife. Such concern had been magnified by a recent chemical trespass incident in south central Washington that quickly polarized people into "pro" and "con" camps and resulted in lawsuits and emergency regulations to address the conflict.

Hoping to avoid a similar situation during the 1989 growing season, the agricultural industry lent its support to a Washington State Conservation Commission-sponsored proposal calling for consensus-based dispute resolution for agricultural and natural resource issues. Commission members selected the RWA control program in eastern Washington as its pilot effort. Washington State University (WSU) Cooperative Extension was asked to facilitate this process. As the facilitator, I was able to test Hackman's model under real-life conditions.

Applying the Model

The first challenge in Hackman's model is responding to personal needs. Once the commission had identified and contacted the 21 stakeholder groups5 and been given the name of each designated representative, the facilitator conducted confidential telephone interviews with each stakeholder. Each was asked: What is the issue? What should be done to resolve it? How do you see yourself and your group involved in implementing improvements? Responses from each stakeholder were randomly entered into a computer to assure confidentiality. The complete list was then disseminated to each stakeholder before the initial meeting.

The second challenge in Hackman's model is strengthening interpersonal relationships. The pre-meeting distribution of stakeholder data served several important purposes. First, it enabled the facilitator to begin building a relationship with each stakeholder based on trust and credibility.6 By receiving the full range of opinions concerning the issue and its potential resolution before the first meeting together, each stakeholder had the chance to move beyond individual concerns and use the data to generate potentially acceptable solutions. Stakeholder data also led to the development of explicity stated core norms to regulate group behavior. The norms, which became our written ground rules, helped to create and sustain a forum for constructive dialogue, interaction, and issue resolution.7

The data also shaped the design of our initial and subsequent meetings. The first meeting emphasized greater understanding of participant needs and concerns by promoting an open discussion of chemical impact on humans, wildlife, and habitat. Once each stakeholder's needs had been discussed, the facilitator encouraged the voluntary creation of work teams. These teams developed criteria by which proposed solutions could be evaluated.

The final challenge in the model is determining acceptable products. The criteria developed at the second meeting defined what each potential solution would need to provide to gain the support of all stakeholder groups: voluntary compliance; public education; protection of people, wildlife, wetlands, and waterways; and ongoing monitoring and assessment of RWA potential for crop damage. The adopted plan met the criteria through a series of voluntary actions agreed on by everyone.

The Results

The stakeholders followed through on what each had voluntarily agreed to do. More than 80,000 fact sheets were printed and distributed describing countermeasures against the RWA and the impact of chemical application on human health and wildlife. The wheat and barley representatives successfully "sold" their constituents on the voluntary posting of land; notification of neighbors before chemical application; creation of buffer zones around residences, wetlands, and waterways; extension of worker re-entry into fields following chemical application from 24 to 48 hours; and WSU regular monitoring and reporting of RWA activity.

Stakeholder representatives held their final meeting on November 15, 1989 to evaluate voluntary compliance. The results were impressive: 75% of the wheat and barley growers who sprayed followed the group's recommendations, fewer pesticides were used, those used were more effective because of WSU's intensive management effort, and there were no reported health hazards associated with the application of pesticides to control the RWA during the 1989 campaign. On a scale of one to 10, the stakeholders gave the forum an eight in satisfactorily resolving the issue.8 Our traditional clientele who participated in the process saw Extension helping them in new ways, while our new clientele began viewing Extension as a credible resource.

As a result of WSU Cooperative Extension's pilot demonstration in successfully bringing people together to resolve an environmental dispute, the organization gained visibility and credibility in the eyes of state, tribal, and local government. In 1990, Extension was asked to facilitate additional environmental dispute resolution processes. Experience gained through these efforts is shaping Extension's current development of a multi-interest coalition to promote creative solutions to natural resource-related conflicts. The coalition should be in place by the end of 1991.

Implications for Extension

The CES can make a major contribution to the resolution of environmental disputes in this country if we choose to do so. Quite a few faculty already have the education, skills, and vision to be effective in this arena. Many others, with additional training, would probably be more willing to take calculated risks and devote sustained effort in this direction. The initial cost incurred by committing two or three staff to such an activity will be quickly repaid in greater credibility with the public, additional support from the legislature, and increased opportunity for faculty growth and development. We have the potential. Are we ready to take the risk and make the commitment?


  1. Consensus is a nonvoting method for making group decisions that all members can support. Since there's no voting, decisions can only be arrived at through a process that encourages each participant to listen carefully, ask questions for clarification, and share understandings with others around the table. When there's disagreement, participants have a responsibility to explore alternative avenues for reaching agreement. The active search for alternatives unleashes the creativity of the participants, with the shared alternatives building on one another to trigger synergistic, "win-win" solutions. Implementation therefore becomes more likely, since the proposed outcome is something each person can support.

  2. Initially developed as a result of his long-term research on work team performance, and advanced through his article: "The Design of Work Teams," in Handbook of Organizational Behavior, Jay W. Lorsch, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1987), pp. 315-42. Later tested in J. Richard Hackman, ed., Groups That Work (and Those That Don't): Creating Conditions for Effective Teamwork (San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1990).

  3. Putting the model in the "bottom-up" category for those who view Extension activities as generated either by the client (bottom-up) or by administrators (top-down).

  4. Countermeasures Against Russian Wheat Aphid in Washington, EM 4835 (Pullman, Washington: WSU Cooperative Extension, May 1989).

  5. Comprised of the following interests: growers (3), wildlife (2), recreation (1), environmental (3), local government (1), agricultural chemicals (2), universities (2) and state (5) and federal (2) agencies.

  6. The data demonstrated the facilitator's ability to maintain confidentiality as well as listen to, and record, stakeholder responses accurately and nonjudgmentally. Participant meeting evaluations provided an accurate measurement of the facilitator's ability to enhance his credibility with stakeholder representatives and their groups.

  7. The ground rules covered everything from: agreeing to use consensus, treating each other with respect, specifying individual responsibility to the group and to her/his constituents, and suggesting how the group would interact with the media...to determining what would constitute acceptable outcomes.

  8. Kenn Brooks, Conservation Commission chairperson, summarized stakeholder success at the last meeting as "historic," noting that it "marked the first time a mediated pesticide issue had ever been achieved in this state. It has shown all parties that we can address contentious issues."