December 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 6 // Commentary // 6COM1

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Cooperative Extension: The Service Challenge

As the United States has grown and progressed, many significant contributions have been recognized as a result of the Cooperative Extension Service. In recent years, however, many states have been moving away from the word "Service" and replacing it with "System." This commentary is based on the premise that, regardless of what we call ourselves, Cooperative Extension professionals must continue to see the organization as responsive and service-based, if we are to remain strong and progressive during our nation's third century and beyond.

Sonya S. Greene
Communications/Public Relations Specialist
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Las Vegas, Nevada
Internet address:

As the United States stands on the threshold of a third century, it is interesting to pause and look back at the road that has been traveled. Indeed, this nation has come a long way, and Cooperative Extension has been an integral part of that journey for more than 80 years. During that time, the organization has made a number of contributions to the development of the nation and its people. The 1995 ECOP/CSREES report "Framing the Future: Strategic Framework for a System of Partnerships," lists the following accomplishments:

  • Supporting phenomenal growth in productivity and labor efficiency in agriculture.
  • Developing human resources, particularly youth and local leaders.
  • Moving a large disadvantaged segment of rural population into the mainstream of society.
  • Making the educational opportunities of the land grant university meaningful and of value to all people.
  • Developing a lifelong educational system that has been replicated worldwide.
  • Building partnerships around complex and critical issues in metropolitan communities.
  • Being a model program and funding partnership among federal, state, and local governments.
  • Involving volunteers in program development and delivery and in organization leadership.

Certainly, such claims are well-documented and are indicative of the reasons that Extension has such a strong tradition of excellence. From the beginning, Extension has been charged with serving the people of this nation; from this concept came the original title: Cooperative Extension Service. Indeed, "service" may have been the last word in Extension's title, but it was clearly the first priority. Through educational programming, the original county agent sought to help people lead better, fuller, more productive lives. At this time, Extension's influence was primarily rural--meeting the stipulation of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 " aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same..." The intent of the act was to provide programming to help citizens in their own communities, focusing on issues that meet their specific needs. In the early years of Extension, County Agents and Home Economists were the epitome of "service" personnel.

By virtue of its mission, Cooperative Extension is a "from-the-bottom-up" organization. The needs of local citizens drive the programs; Extension professionals serve those needs. Yet, as both our organization and our customer-base has grown, many Extension offices seem to be moving away from the term "service." In the relatively recent past, a number of states, as well as the national organization, have chosen to refer to themselves as the "Cooperative Extension System," rather than the "Cooperative Extension Service." With this shift, there has sometimes been a subtle undertone that the reason for said new title is that Extension is no longer a "service"; instead, we are an educational entity. In other words, we are here to educate the public, not to serve them. Yet, by educating our citizenry in useful and practical matters, aren't we providing one of the greatest services possible?

The 1992 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes a number of definitions of "service," several of which are clear descriptors of Cooperative Extension (I have included only those definitions which are applicable):

  1. Employment in duties or work for another, especially for a government.
  2. A government branch or department and its employees.
  3. Work done for others as an occupation or a business.
  4. A facility providing the public with the use of something.
  5. An act of assistance or benefit to another or others.
  6. Offering services to the public in response to need or demand.

The last definition is probably the best in describing our nation's free-market service industry. It is also an excellent description of what Cooperative Extension should be about. Yes, we are in the business of education, but, no matter how you look at it, Extension must be a service-oriented entity.

The purpose of our organization is to serve our customer--whether that customer resides in a huge apartment building in a large city or in a small farmhouse fifty miles from the nearest neighbor. Further, those services provided must be in a response to consumer demand. Cooperative Extension professionals should listen to those they serve in order to find out what "practical education" needs exist. We must remember that perception is reality. Hence, if our customers perceive something to be a "need", it is a "need", regardless of what the research implies or of what we think is necessary. The bottom-line, of course, is being responsive--to the individual and to the community.

This commentary is not meant to criticize the use of the term "System." That term does indeed connote a broader, more modern organization. However, if the loss of the word "Service" in our title allows us to forget that our business--and our mission--is one of service, we lose the very link that has made Cooperative Extension a long-standing and extraordinarily successful organization worldwide. We are a broad based nation-wide system, yes...we are an educational entity, yes...but what will continue to make Extension unique, no matter how large or how modern we become, is that we still provide the outstanding SERVICE that our citizens--our customers--have come to expect. And that same educational service is the key to Cooperative Extension remaining a strong and progressive organization during our nation's third century and beyond.