Spring 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA5

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Evaluating County Clustering

Extension is being asked to address a variety of complex human problems not limited by county boundaries. Addressing these problems typically requires many areas of expertise that can't be found among agents in a single county office. This scenario has given rise to the concept of county clustering, an Extension staffing and programming model that brings together multicounty teams of Extension agents to address complex, large-scale problems.

Gregory K. Hutchins
Extension Assistant Director-4-H Youth Development Programs
Alabama Cooperative Extension Service
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

Extension is being asked to address a variety of complex human problems not limited by county boundaries. Addressing these problems typically requires many areas of expertise that can't be found among agents in a single county office. This scenario has given rise to the concept of county clustering, an Extension staffing and programming model that brings together multicounty teams of Extension agents to address complex, large-scale problems.

Minnesota Cluster System

Clustering has been in existence in Minnesota since 1987. It was introduced as a way to improve the Minnesota Extension Service's capacity to do issues-based programming. Clustering has been accompanied by the implementation of agent specializations.1 Specialization increases the expertise of individual agents, and county clustering brings these agents together in multicounty teams to apply their collective expertise to regional problems. Agents continue to be based in county offices and still spend the majority of their time on county programs and problems, but up to 25% of their work is done on behalf of the cluster.

The formation of clusters was voluntary; counties could choose whether they wished to participate in a cluster, and if so, who they wanted to cluster with. County Extension committees negotiated with one another and submitted their proposed configurations to the director's office. Based on these local decisions, the state was divided into 20 clusters. The original clusters were composed of three to seven counties, and had from nine to more than 50 county Extension agents per cluster.

During the Summer of 1990, a study was done to gain some understanding of agents' experiences with county clustering and agent specialization in Minnesota. Fifteen county Extension agents representing 15 counties and three program areas were systematically interviewed using a standard set of open-ended questions. The agents had between four and 25 years Extension experience, so they were able to contrast the recent changes with the previous organizational norms.

Agents' Initial Reactions

The introduction of clustering was received in different ways by the staff. Feelings ranged from excitement to anxiety to apathy. The agents who were excited believed specialization promised the opportunity to focus more of their time on an area of special interest. They expected that regularly working with agents in other counties would offer a new level of collegial support and stimulation. These agents anticipated the potential to be involved in programs that were larger, more interesting, and more innovative than those in their individual counties.

Other agents were anxious about the plan. They saw increased demands on their time. Agents would spend up to 25% of their time working on cluster programs, yet there was no clear indication of a corresponding reduction in county work. Some staff believed local priorities were of primary concern, and the distraction of clustering would pull them away from serving local needs. Some agents were uncomfortable with the new level of collegial accountability found in clustering. Presenting programs on behalf of a colleague in a neighboring county produced a new type of peer pressure.

A third group was indifferent. They viewed clustering as a new name for something they thought they'd been doing for a long time. They anticipated no change.

Cluster Team Development

Program Teams

Each cluster was expected to form staff teams in agriculture, home economics, and 4-H. The teams were comprised of agents who had those program area assignments in their counties. District directors appointed one of the agents on each team to serve as a coordinator. The first cluster programs emerged from the work of these teams. Their initial focus was on ongoing programming, as they explored ways that cluster coordination could create efficiencies in what they were already doing. Most of these teams had a history of periodically coordinating together, so this first step was easy:

    In the ag program area it [clustering] started working right away....Maybe it was because of our past relationships and knowing what we were supposed to do....So all of that sort of thing came fairly easily, and was pretty natural and easy to accomplish. (agricultural agent)

In many clusters, the program area teams quickly became an important source of support for individual agents, particularly the less-experienced agents. That collegial support and camaraderie gave most of these teams a positive feeling about meeting together on a regular basis:

    I think we have become a support system in 4-H. We have had a lot of turnover, and clustering has been a real support for new agents. They have been able to get together and talk about things and trouble-shoot ideas. That's how they find out other ways of doing things. (4-H agent)

Issue Teams

After some initial success with the three cluster program teams, Extension administration asked the clusters to identify cluster issues, produce a cluster plan of work, and create issue teams that would begin implementing those program plans. This shift towards interdisciplinary issue teams proved to be a difficult step for the staff.

The activity of the original cluster program teams developed naturally, drawing primarily on the agents' historical working relationships and programming patterns. The cluster issue teams seemed to many agents at first to be an unnatural way to work. Staff needed additional support and direction from Extension middle managers, district directors, and state program leaders to move into this newer form. With this administrative help, agents in the clusters began to go through a collective process of issue identification:

    The plan of work, issue identification process, that whole system of putting things together, the act of forcing us to have to do it, I don't know that it would have happened without that. The plan of work forced us to sit down together, it was not something you could do independently....It wasn't really until we were forced to have to sit down as a group and actually work this out together. As much as I hate to see edicts coming from administration, I think sometimes you need to do that just to jar things loose and get things moving again. (4-H agent)

This was followed by the formation of individual issue teams. Every agent in the cluster was to participate on one of these teams. These new groups began to meet and struggle with the combined challenges of being a team and also addressing a new kind of program need. As they did this, the teams began to develop a shared vision for their task and a new view of what each of the individuals on the team could contribute to their collective effort. The eventual outcome was a new type of integrated programming that built on the combined talents of a variety of agents:

    Clustering has helped us overcome some of our stereotype images of each other's program areas. We appreciate better the different disciplines we have, recognizing the different strengths the different program areas can bring in. We've been able to recognize we're all individuals with strengths and try to use that to our full potential. (home economics agent)

Benefits and Costs

From an agent's perspective, clustering has both benefits and costs.

First, agents found specialization an attractive component of clustering. Agents liked being able to focus more of their energy in a single area, and to be viewed throughout the cluster as a teacher and a resource in a specialized field. However, they're still saddled with "generalist" duties and find that frustrating. Agents have enjoyed the specialized staff development they've received, and feel they're better trained today as a result:

    It [specialization] gives me the rationale to go to some things and say no to other things or to be a resource person for family life issues and not for financial management, because I feel I have a little behind me with administration to say yes or no to things. Instead of trying to go to everything and be everything. (home economics agent)

    The people in the county vaguely know there's something like that [specialization], but they still expect the same service and response and they don't care if you're a livestock specialized agent, if they have a crop question they come to ask you and expect you to know as much about that as ever. That hasn't gone away....I do feel good about the fact that in my subject-matter specialization I do have probably more opportunities for more indepth kind of training, more than was available before. (agricultural agent)

    It [specialization] has allowed me to become more focused, which in turn allows me to feel like I'm more important. I simply do better work. I do more work. The number of people I reach is so much higher to say nothing of the depth and the breadth of it. (home economics agent)

In the opinion of the staff, the quality of their programs has also improved, though some agents fear selected county programming may be suffering because of the increased staff time that must be given to the cluster. Agents said they do a more thorough job of preparation for programs because they're now delivering them in a number of counties. The larger audiences, the multiple presentations, and the sense of commitment to their fellow agents has prompted them to be better prepared:

    You can spend more time getting ready for a lesson and doing a better job getting the background information and researching that. You get kind of polished after you have given it a couple of times....Today, I think I'm better prepared because I can spend more time getting ready for the lesson. (home economics/4-H agent)

    There's some pressure not to let the others down, and to look as good as you can in the eyes of your colleagues. Some of that existed before clustering, but I'd say there's more of that now. (agricultural agent)

    Some of the products we probably wouldn't have had [without clustering]. On an individual county basis, you'd have never gotten the whole leadership thing off the ground because of the time and expense and probably the risk factor. It's a little safer if a bunch of you are working on it and it flops. (home economics/4-H agent)

Collegial support has been important. Clustering has heightened the sense of personal and professional support that agents receive from their colleagues. That has been particularly helpful to newer agents:

    Clustering builds just a unique relationship. Mutual respect and support, and that wasn't there the same way before clustering. We didn't know each other as well, we didn't see each other as often. Now we have a lot more in common too, so it kind of builds on itself. (4-H/home economics agent)

    Agents feel much more free to share. They're expected to share. That probably wouldn't have happened without clustering....In our case, there are five other ag agents and seven people on an issue team you have to work with. You begin to have to rely on other people to do their role. I enjoy that, but it's a totally different situation than it was 20 years ago when there was a strong county identity. You were the county agent. You kind of did what you wanted in that county. It didn't matter what the agent next to you thought. He did what he wanted. So when you're working together, you've got to rely on each other. (agricultural agent)

The clustering process has required much time and energy from agents. As one home economics agent said, "The whole thing just takes a lot more time." Developing and working on cluster teams has involved more time for planning and coordination. It has also meant increased levels of personal stress for many agents:

    Coordinating takes a lot of time. It frustrates me...it [clustering] is a very cumbersome process. It's just too cumbersome, the time involved, not only time out of the county, but time in planning. (agricultural agent)

In Minnesota, clustering continues to evolve. Agents have found reasons to both like and dislike the concept. Over time, however, the agents in this study have found ways to refine the model and make it function effectively for them. As Extension continues to develop more effective strategies for issues-based programming, county clustering may be one approach that can help.


1. G. K. Hutchins, "Agent Specialization and the 4-H PRK Model," Journal of Extension, XXVII (Winter 1990), 12-14.