Summer 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 2 // To The Point // 2TP3

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A County Perspective

Consistency is needed across the organization. Look at the different entities we have to relate to. The last thing we need is another complex set of rules and regulations. State Extension directors must be sure county directors are top quality administrators.

Linda P. Erickson
Extension Agent
Oregon City, Oregon

Conflict of interest deals with a broad range of issues. Those Fowler identified fall into two broad categories: (1) consulting or owning a business with primary motivations being enhancement of self or community, monetary, or professional development and (2) working with private sector cooperators with the primary motivation being program enhancement.

Fowler raised some good questions on the issues which I, as a county faculty member, will have very little involvement in solving. There are no simple answers, but, as a county faculty member, I need simple, direct, policies to work with. I know there will be gray areas and as a professional, I should be empowered to use prudent judgment at all times. In dealing with the two broad categories I've mentioned above, there are four elements I believe are necessary in the system: consistency, communication, excellent supervision, and professionalism.

  1. Consistency. With all the differences that exist within the system, there must be common ground. Consistency is needed across the organization. If the ECOP position is consistent with USDA guidelines, this will be a good beginning. State Extension directors have two big challenges facing them: developing policies that are consistent with university policies as well as consistent within the state Extension organization. Consistent policies and guidelines should apply among the disciplines and program assignments, and within the counties. For example, in the area of consulting, a consistent policy for all faculty members could be that "private consulting for monetary gain shouldn't occur with clients (students) or in the client geographic area.''Consistency will eliminate a lot of confusion.

  2. Communication. We don't hear much about conflict of interest in the county. The expectations of field staff in dealing with the private sector must be clearly communicated in a language easily understood and usable. Few agencies are as complex as ours with all the power structures and partnerships. Look at the different entities we have to relate to: USDA, ECOP, the university, the state Extension organization, district supervisor, county director, donors or cooperators, clients, advisory councils, and county commissioners! The last thing we need is another complex set of rules and regulations. The county director (or first-line supervisor) is the key person in communicating to county faculty the expectations of dealing with the private sector. This means that all county directors within a state must be communicating the same message and the state Extension director must make sure each county director is appropriately informed.

  3. Excellent Supervision. Based on the above, the county director must involve faculty in quality decision making about relationships with the private sector. Even if policies are clear and well-communicated, there are always decisions to be made about involvement and programming. The county director must clearly communicate the conflict of interest policies and guidelines of the university. Further, the county director must not have a different set of standards for him/herself. State Extension directors must be sure county directors are top quality administrators.

  4. Professionalism. Faculty members who understand the policies, live by a code of ethics, and practice professionalism will be able to make sound judgments about working with the private sector.

In conclusion, consistent policies and guidelines, well- communicated, with excellent supervision can eliminate most problems with conflict of interest. But in the end, it comes down to the ethical and professional practices of the individual faculty member.

The Forum section has an article advocating more active involvement of Extension educators with commodity associations. It addresses potential conflicts of interest and is highly relevant to the issues raised by this To The Point discussion.