Fall 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Is Extension Changing Too Rapidly?

I question whether Extension is really moving "toward the cutting edge." ...labels placed on National Initiatives and the special initiative assignments given to staff can be more divisive that the "fences" that have been built around individual disciplines. Is a fence around an initiative any lower than a fence around a discipline?

Donald E. Nelson
National Program Leader
Woods Products Marketing
Washington, D.C.

I question whether Extension is really moving "toward the cutting edge." It's just possible that Extension's attempts to embrace modern management concepts, particularly those from private industry, are leading us away from the cutting edge.

Extension has gone from planning to strategic planning, then to anticipatory planning and futuring, and now to issues-based programming. Advocates boast that issues-based programming is unique because it transcends programmatic boundaries, so an associated buzz word becomes "interdisciplinary." Who can be opposed to "interdisciplinary"? (Or does that sometimes force Extension faculty to try to cover subject areas in which they aren't qualified?) It's as if all a manager needs to do is provide some bare-bones training opportunities to staff, and presto, that staff is now capable of true interdisciplinary thinking and programming, whether they fully understand these disciplines or not. As with some previous management concepts, such as "management by objectives," "zero-based budgeting," "zero defects," or "market orientation," saying that you're doing it is much easier than actually achieving a high-quality end result.

Inconsistent National Initiatives

Shortly after Extension selected issues-based programming as its planning mode, it also selected eight (then nine, then five, then six, then seven) National Initiatives. The original eight initiatives contained 40 pre-selected issues. Were these the real issues that states should be addressing at that point in time? Or were the real issues those that surfaced through an issues-based state programming process? Or through a county process? Were sufficient time and resources made available to address the issue before the next even higher priority issue was identified?

For example, the Conservation and Management of Natural Resources (CMNR) Initiative has made a difference, initially. Many states organized CMNR teams, implemented issues-based programming, broadened their planning perspectives and their participation, found new sources of funding, began to develop interdisciplinary programs, formed new partnerships, and reallocated resources. In short, some states implemented the CMNR Initiative just like those who planned the initiative process hoped they would. During the short time that CMNR was an initiative, states were moving toward stronger CMNR programs, but will that and should that continue now that CMNR is no longer a National Initiative?

It seems inconsistent to ask the system to adopt the given National Initiatives (and related national issues) and, at the same time, encourage states to begin their own issues-based programming, to identify new issues. These two processes end up working against each other. The National Initiatives and national issues say to the system: "Here are the issues the system has determined to be important." Issues-based programming, on the other hand says: "Here is the process you should be using to determine what the real issues are." But a state can't accept the National Initiatives (and the issues they encompass) and also accept that it needs to do its own issues programming to arrive at the issues to be addressed.

What about issues programming in the counties? Are counties to address the issues contained in the National Initiatives, or the issues identified by state issues-based programming, or should they ignore both and do their own issues-based programming?

It seems to me that the National Initiatives are weakened if states identify different issues. Yet, it also seems to me that if states accept the issues identified in the National Initiatives rather than developing their own, they run the danger of being out-of-touch with what's needed locally.

Interdisciplinary Divisiveness

Certainly a strength of issues-based programming is its interdisciplinary nature, but labels placed on National Initiatives and the special initiative assignments given to staff can be more divisive than the "fences" that have been built around individual disciplines. Is a fence around an initiative any lower than a fence around a discipline? Can Extension professionals whose present disciplines are now perceived as being of lower priority convert to the needed disciplines or develop the needed interdisciplinary skills rapidly enough to contribute before the next change in direction?

Perhaps the Extension System shouldn't expect states to immediately accept either the initiatives or issues-based programming, or both. The system needs to accept that much of what's already in place in Extension is good, productive, and responsive, based on a proven Extension program planning process.

Following Fads

I realize full well that any person who dares to question the "innovative" strategies of today's enlightened leadership will be labeled a cynic, and therefore considered part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But, I have a strong suspicion that leaders and managers everywhere have been, and will continue to be, sold a bill of goods that, for the most part, is neither new nor better. Leaders everywhere, encouraged by highly paid management consultants, buy into the new concepts because others who are also "progressive" are buying in. They go through the motions, even talking as if the new management concept is in place and functioning perfectly. Sometimes they are so caught up with the new buzz words that they give each other awards for having implemented such programs, when, in fact, no substantive changes have been made.

Meanwhile, the on-the-ground operations of the organization may be struggling to survive, as resources are drawn away from ongoing operations for planning and implementing the "new" management concept. However, this "new" never becomes fully implemented because the next new management concept soon comes down the pike, and the same enthusiastic managers abandon the earlier concept about as rapidly as they'd accepted it.

That's why I question whether Extension is really on the cutting edge-or just following the latest planning fad and thereby undercutting the strong disciplinary programs that have worked so well throughout our history.