June 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Overcoming Resistance to Issues-Based Programming

Issues-Based Programming (IBP) has been both useful to and resisted by Extension personnel. This article describes steps that could help overcome resistance to IBP. It suggests 10 practical, field-tested steps that state, district/area, and county Extension systems can use to involve the public in identifying issues critical to all of Extension's subject matter areas; to build system-wide ownership and use of the results; and to focus programming efforts on issues of public importance.

Raymond K. Yang
Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Internet address: yang@condor.cahs.colostate.edu

Robert J. Fetsch
Extension Specialist
Human Development and Family Studies
Internet address: fetsch@lamar.colostate.edu

Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado

Glen O. Jenson
Extension Specialist
College of Family Life
Utah State University
Logan, Utah

Randy R. Weigel
Extension Associate Director
Department of Home Economics
University of Wyoming
Laramie, Wyoming

Issues-Based Programming (IBP) is increasingly described as the way to make Cooperative Extension programs more responsive to public needs. IBP is also thought to be useful when Extension offices cannot serve all of their clientele, for example, when budget reductions necessitate reductions in staff. IBP helps Extension administrators and specialists delineate and prioritize important issues, and respond to those issues efficiently. This may be important when legislators and the public demand more responsive and accountable service.

Baker and Verma (1993) found both substantial use of and resistance to IBP by Extension personnel. They cited five reasons for this contradiction: unfamiliarity with practical strategies to conduct IBP; lack of state and field administrative support for the IBP process; inadequate training for agents and specialists in the role of facilitator, especially with focus-group interview procedures; fear of territorial problems; and ineffective use of volunteers with experience and interest in the issues.

Three additional reasons for Extension resistance to IBP seem possible. First, IBP may appear to be a ploy that administrators use to redirect efforts of specialists and agents. Second, IBP may be without a truly empirical method of delineating and prioritizing issues. That is, it may be vulnerable to the influences of others (e.g., an administrator with predetermined issues and priorities). Third, the concept of IBP may contain too many tandem elements to be workable. That is, IBP requires that issues be identified, and that ensuing programming be based directly on those issues. When programming does not align closely with identified issues, the entire process can appear desultory.

In this article, a process for empirically delineating issues in a way that directly informs and focuses programming is described. A method for ensuring that stakeholders are directly involved in the process, and therefore, should feel responsible to implement it is also articulated. Three components of this process have been successfully tested: defining the issues (Jenson, Warstadt, Daly & Schuchardt, 1990), validating them (Weigel, Fetsch, Jenson, Yang & Rogers, 1992), and clustering them in a way that focuses programming (Yang, Fetsch, Jenson & Weigel, 1994).

Jenson and his colleagues (Jenson & Daly, 1988; Jenson et al., 1990) collected statements indicative of family trends and issues from congressional committees, federal funding agencies, agencies with responsibilities for family-related matters, and social policy organizations. From these statements 83 emerging trends and issues were generated. These trends and issues were winnowed to 33 issues through a process of elimination; professional Extension staff and homemaker club presidents selected a rank-ordered subset representing the most important issues (Jenson & Daly, 1988). Each issue in the subset was then rated on how critical it was (i.e., in need of immediate attention) by a national sample of Extension professionals, university faculty, and others (Jenson et al., 1990). This rating was replicated with a sample representing consumers (Weigel et al., 1992). Below is a listing of the 12 family issues rated most critical by the consumer sample:

  1. Rising Health Care Costs
  2. Substance Abuse
  3. Child Abuse
  4. Functional Illiteracy of Youth
  5. Inadequate Elderly Health Care
  6. High School Dropouts
  7. Health Insurance for Young Adults
  8. Inadequate School Preparation for the Labor Market
  9. Youth Suicide
  10. Strengthening the Family
  11. Alcoholism
  12. Teenage Pregnancy and Childbearing

These top 12 issues are similar to those obtained by Jenson and his colleagues (Jenson & Daly, 1988; Jenson et al., 1990). Despite their comparable ranking, the method does not help identify issues which are interrelated, and whose interrelationships might better inform program developers.

Therefore, to determine which issues were interrelated, a factor analysis of the entire 33-item subset was conducted. Each item was factor-scored to generate a ranked set of broader concerns (Yang et al., 1994). The analysis provided six orthogonal factors: (a) School System Failure, (b) Substance Abuse Effects, (c) Parenting Stress, (c) Elderly's Critical Needs, (e) Disenfranchised Poor, and (f) Economic Challenges.

The factors economically summarized the entire set of issues and generated a prioritized set of broad concerns. Notably, the ranking of these factor-generated concerns differed from the ranked single issues. This meant that the broad concerns contained single issues which, when clustered with other issues rated similarly, changed their ranking. These concerns defined targetable sets of issues for which specific programs could be developed.

10 Steps to Develop, Validate, and Cluster Issues into Programmable Units

Cooperative Extension is a multi-disciplinary profession. The complex issues dealt with by Extension faculty often engage several subject matters. The issues identification process outlined by Jenson and Daly (1988) and Weigel et al., (1992) focused only on family issues. The suggestions listed below are applicable to identifying and clustering issues in all subject-matter disciplines offered by Extension. Based on previous experience with IBP, 10 steps are suggested to develop, validate, and cluster issues into programmable units.

  1. Identify the constituencies who have an investment in the results of issues-based programming. Consider clientele, non-clientele, volunteers, field agents, campus specialists, faculty, and administrators.

  2. Form a small "Issues Task Force" with representatives from each of these constituencies. Limit the group to 5-8 members with a facilitator. Members must have the time and energy to commit to IBP. A rapid written communication system (e.g., e-mail) should link all task force members. An effective communication system (e.g., telephone) should link task force members with their constituencies.

  3. Have each task force member collect statements of critical issues from their constituencies. The statements should be simple declarative sentences, for example, "Teenage drug abuse is a serious problem" or "Non-point source water pollution must be addressed." The statements should represent as many of the critical issues as possible; the actual number of statements is not important at this point.

  4. Have the task force collate all the collected statements. From the declarative sentences the subject should be retained and the predicates should be dropped. For example, "Teenage drug abuse is a serious problem" should be truncated to "Teenage Drug Abuse." This process can eliminate redundant topics. For example, "Teenage drug abuse is a serious problem" and "Teenage drug abuse is vastly overestimated" become identical. Care should be taken to avoid combining subjects that are similar, but not identical (e.g., teenage alcoholism and teenage abuse of other drugs).

  5. Construct a survey form, listing a reasonable number of critical issues. The survey could be designed to be administered as a mail or telephone survey. Items should be randomly ordered. The survey should not identify the respondent beyond status and, possibly, demographic characteristics. A prototype of the survey should be pilot tested with people not on the task force. This helps to discover confusing statements and eliminate easily missed errors.

  6. Construct Likert-type scales applicable for all issue statements. The responses might range from "Unimportant" or "May Need Attention in Several Years" to "Extremely Important" or "Needs Immediate Attention." Each item should be paired with the Likert-type scale and examined for appropriateness.

  7. Obtain a random sample of the population. Consider State Drivers License Bureau, Voter Registration lists, or telephone listings. Sample size will vary based on the number of issues in the survey. A general rule of thumb is to multiply by ten the number of items in the survey to determine sample size. Thus, a 30-issue survey should have about 300 respondents. Generally, this is enough to sustain the statistical reliability of the analysis.

  8. Use a systematic method for increasing return rates. Dillman (1978) has outlined a method that has proven effective in many situations.

  9. Factor analyze the data to identify broad concerns. Factor analysis is helpful in identifying which group of issues is assigned the greatest importance. Pre-packaged computer programs (e.g., Statistical Programs for the Social Sciences) are available on most university campuses. Additional analyses can be conducted on the relation between demographic characteristics, status, and concerns.

  10. To verify findings from the mail or telephone survey and to determine which issues are most appropriate for Cooperative Extension to address, identify a random number of people who are willing to participate in focus group interviews to review and reflect on the data. Having skilled Extension faculty lead focus groups can help solve some of the problems faced by Baker and Verma (1993).


The method described above is similar to opinion polling. But, there is an important difference: The method ensures that the respondents define issues about which they will later express opinions. Thus, this method deals with issues that are important to constituents. By comparison, national opinion polls (e.g., Roper, Gallup) deal with issues that may not be considered particularly relevant by community members to their communities.

Determining critical issues is a daunting task. Certain issues while critical to some, may ultimately be ranked low in the list of priorities. Also, some issues ranked high by the public may not be ones thought to be important by professionals. These issues may not be among those to which professionals feel they can effectively respond. Nonetheless, IBP has a prerequisite--that professionals know what their clientele consider to be the important issues.

Much of the resistance to IBP by Extension can be precluded with practical strategies for issues validation. By creating teams of stakeholders with a commitment to work together to use the steps outlined in this article, most of the resistance can be overcome. Involving the Extension Director, other administrators, campus faculty, and field faculty to help the task force identify critical issues builds ownership and support for using the results in IBP. By building an interdisciplinary task force with a skilled facilitator, territorial problems can be minimized. This public and empirically-based process increases the likelihood that redirected efforts of specialists and agents will more likely be focused on the publics' perceived needs.


Baker, F. E., & Verma, S. (1993). Evaluating issues programming. Journal of Extension, 31(Fall), 20-21.

Dillman, D. A. (1978). Mail and telephone surveys: The total design method. New York: Wiley.

Jenson, G. O., & Daly, R. T. (1988). Family and economic well-being environmental scan. Cooperative Extension System national initiatives: Focus on issues (GPO No. 1988- 201:80180/ES). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Jenson, G., Warstadt, T., Daly, R., & Schuchardt, J. (1990). A ranking of critical issues facing American families (ED435b). Logan: Utah State University Cooperative Extension.

Weigel, R. R., Fetsch, R. J., Jenson, G. O., Yang, R. K., & Rogers, D. L. (1992). Issues validation: A new environmental scanning technique for family life educators. Family Relations, 41, 251-255.

Yang, R. K., Fetsch, R. J., Jenson, G. O., & Weigel, R. R. (1994). Broad attitudes subsume public concerns about specific family issues. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Author Notes

Yang and Fetsch made equal contributions to this article.