Fall 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 3 // Forum // 3FRM1

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People Listening to People...Or Are We Really?

...as this organization moves through an era of self-examination, reorganization, and revitalization, the products of strategic plans and administrative reviews cast doubt on whether Extension is really listening to people. I think our listening can be improved. the need for more attentive listening is shown by our strategic planning experience in Ohio.

Ruth M. Conone
Assistant Director
Extension Home Economics
Ohio State University-Columbus

Editor's Note: The purpose of the Forum is to provide a platform for expression of opinions about Extension. Authors writing for Forum are expressing their own opinions. They don't speak for their state or the Extension System. This is an excellent Forum because the author expresses a clear and strong viewpoint based on her own direct experience and observations. The author served as co-chair of Ohio's long-range planning task force.

"People Listening to People..." is an admirable slogan of the Cooperative Extension System. Yet, as this organization moves through an era of self-examination, reorganization, and revitalization, the products of strategic plans and administrative reviews cast doubt on whether Extension is really listening to people. I think our listening can be improved. The need for more attentive listening is shown by our strategic planning experience in Ohio.

Ohio's Experience: Example of the Problem

During the 1980s, Extension was forced to curtail operations and reduce staff because of funding constraints. In an effort to "upgrade while downsizing," the administration of the Ohio Cooperative Extension Service appointed a Strategic/Long-Range Planning Task Force in 1986 to recommend how to use limited resources to meet educational needs of Ohioans. This task force, under the theme "People Listening to People," gathered information from 3,223 users and nonusers of Extension by asking, "What are the most important problems in your: (1) home and family life, (2) work and business, and (3) communities?" The data collection process included both quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

A rich database on problems was created. Program priorities within program areas showed responsiveness to these problems, but resource allocation among program areas has changed only slightly. Why? Extension programing continues to be primarily agricultural because a significant proportion of resources are invested in tenured agricultural faculty and the director of Extension is an associate dean in the College of Agriculture. To understand this problem, we have to look at how we're trapped in our agrarian past.

Trapped in Our Agrarian Past

The structure of Cooperative Extension was created over 75 years ago during an agrarian era. State Extension directors were placed in agricultural colleges and in many states are still associate deans in those colleges. Policy, mission, and programming decisions continue to reflect that agricultural heritage even though the preponderance of clientele needs identified in our strategic planning process was in areas other than agriculture.

Ohio's long-range planning process revealed that the most important problems in family and home were money and family relationship problems. The most important problems in work and business were looking for supplemental income for farm families, securing child care, and stress. The most important problems in communities were loss of jobs, crime, and maintaining strong communities.

Production agriculture wasn't identified as a priority problem in the planning process. Yet, one staffing recommendation made by the task force was the following: "The best use of available personnel will be determined by the Ohio Extension administration working with county agents, county Extension advisory committees, and county commissioners. Programming will be conducted in the four program areas, with priority given to agriculture. Most Ohio counties should continue to have an agent conducting agriculture programs." With the structure of Extension administration located in the College of Agriculture, agriculture well-represented on the long-range planning task force, and the structure of county advisory committees largely made up of agricultural commodity representatives, the emphasis on agriculture is continued rather than responding to current needs identified by a representative sample of people in the state.

After examining the data, this long-range planning task force reached a number of conclusions. One was: "Staffing patterns should reflect the direction of program emphases of Ohio Extension." Because of budget constraints, staffing changes needed to be made expediently. However, when they're made before program direction is set they determine rather than reflect programming.

A second conclusion: "Needs of the people and characteristics of counties and districts should be considered in staffing patterns. Urban, suburban, and rural counties may have varying organization and staffing needs. Differential staffing should be considered based on county characteristics." Eleven Ohio counties each have a population of over 200,000. Over 70% of state legislators are from these urban counties and they ask Extension what it's doing for them. The continued agrarian emphasis in Extension keeps us from being as responsive to urban needs as we are to rural needs.

As Table 1 shows, Extension's world has changed. Extension needs to move beyond its agrarian past if it's to be a genuine information-age organization.

Table 1: Contrasting Extension eras.

Past (1914, Smith-Lever Act) Present and future
* Agrarian era: production
agriculture is predominant
form of work
* Information era: service
jobs are predominant
form of work
* Limited supply of food * Food abundance
* Basic technology * Advanced technology
* Agricultural production a
major need
* Social/economic needs
* Extension program focus-
agricultural production
* Program focus-priorities
of people
* Extension director placed in
College in Agriculture
* Extension director needs to be at
vice-provost or vice-
president level
* Discipline-focused programming * Issues-focused programming

Implications for Extension's Future

Three recommendations for strengthening future long-range planning efforts emerge from my analysis of Ohio's process and failure to shift priorities. First, we must listen to users of Extension who represent the whole Extension System rather than primarily one program area. Make the task force truly balanced and representative, not dominated by traditional entrenched interests. Second, add to the task force some leaders who aren't users of Extension to identify programming needed by people who don't use Extension. Third, develop a mission statement after determining implications of data collected. Then, use the data to set program priorities.

Note that the problems weren't in the process or the data collected to support our planning process. The strategic/long- range planning process used in Ohio was comprehensive. Multiple data collection methods yielded information that hadn't before been available for planning, staffing, and programming. The problem was that the subsequent priority setting didn't follow the data.

To program for the type of needs identified in this process and inherent in the philosophy of issues-based programming, Extension must change in several ways:

  1. Establish the director of Extension in a university-wide administrative unit, such as the provost's office. This will position the organization to more effectively use resources from throughout the university. It will also enable the director to more objectively view expressed educational needs and interests of broadly based clientele in the state.

    The directors of Extension Services in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Iowa, North Dakota, Missouri, Virginia, and Montana, for example, are/or have been at the chancellor, vice- provost, or vice-president level. I believe directors at this level don't experience pressure for resources from agricultural commodity groups in the same way as directors who are associate deans in the College of Agriculture. Also, directors outside a college won't experience the same pressure for resources from department chairs in one college as they do when they are part of the administrative structure of one college.

    At the federal level, the Extension administrator needs to have joint appointments (or deputy administrators) in Departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, etc., as well as Agriculture to secure budget and provide program leadership to address issues.

  2. Involve people in the strategic/long-range planning process who don't have a vested interest in any phase of current administrative structure or programming efforts. These people can contribute objectively in developing mission statements, program direction, and staffing patterns.

  3. Collect needs assessment data from both users and nonusers of Extension. Every effort should be made to gather information from a wide variety of individuals using multiple data collection methods.

  4. Move beyond an agrarian focus to more fully respond to the current needs of the diversity of people in the state.

The Challenge

If Extension is to continue as a viable educational organization, it needs to change structure, staffing, and program focus. Legislators who fund us are addressing a variety of critical needs including waste management, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, child abuse/neglect, school dropouts, health care, day care, welfare. Extension has expertise to address these problems and, because of its nonregulatory status and link with universities, is able to provide educational programs for youth and adults that can make a real difference.

However, drastic changes are needed if the Extension System expects to empower people through improved programming into the 21st century. Strategic long-range planning is the key to identifying direction-if such planning is done effectively and the results really used. People are telling us what their priority problems are, but are we really listening?