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January 29, 2009

Ordering from a menu of messages

This week I taught a "Building Extension's Public Value" workshop for University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. (It wasn't exactly warm in Lincoln, but it was nice and sunny and at least warmer than here at home!) While the UN-L work groups were drafting public value messages for their programs, a few of them wrestled with the trade-off between brevity and completeness. Should they draft a message that names all of the behavior changes, outcomes, and public benefits their program generates, sort of like a logic model? Or should they draft something that is shorter and "punchier" that tells only a single story: naming a single set of behavior change-outcome-public benefit?

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For communicating with a single stakeholder who has an identifiable concern (e.g., the county commissioner who is concerned about demand for public services, or the business owner concerned about property values), the short, one story message might be best. But, it might be useful for a program team to draft the more comprehensive message for their colleagues within the organization. Then Extension staff could pick and choose from the list of changes, outcomes, and public benefits to create messages that they can use for various purposes. The idea arose for a "menu" of changes, outcomes, and public benefits from which we could choose one from column A, one from column B, and one from column C to form an appealing meal...I mean: message. Different messages for different stakeholders and different stakeholder concerns.

What do you think? Do you have an idea about how to organize and implement a public value message menu?

Making the case for Extension during a fiscal crisis

The public value approach was born out of the state and local fiscal crisis of 2001-02. We wanted to make the case for public funding for Extension programs and to help Extension organizations focus scarce resources on programs that generate public value. States and localities are now facing what is, in many cases, even more discouraging fiscal news, and Cooperative Extension is again feeling the financial pressure. I wonder if the public value approach can help Extension make its case for funding under these circumstances. I wonder if focusing on the public benefits of programs can help secure support, even when demands on public resources are extraordinarily high.

A bit of insight into that question comes from a survey I conducted in December 2008 of "Building Extension's Public Value" trainees. The survey asked respondents how they have used the training and how their own public value work has influenced their organization. Out of 400 people surveyed, 106 responded, for a response rate of 27%. (If you were one of the respondents: Thank you!)

Most survey respondents reported having followed their training with additional steps toward adopting the public value approach. For example, 74% explained the public value approach to colleagues, 47% used a public value message when communicating with stakeholders, and 37% explained the public value approach to stakeholders. In addition, 83 % of respondents reported that the public value approach had influenced the way their organization communicates with stakeholders.

The survey also asked how the public value approach had affected various aspects of the Extension organization. On a five-point Likert scale ranging from "very negatively" (1) to "very positively" (5), the most positive impact was on the respondents' own work (average rating of 4.10). Respondents reported similar impacts on how stakeholders view the organization (average rating of 3.74) and how stakeholders view the organization's programs (3.72).

But, what really surprised me, and made me think about making Extension's case during a fiscal crisis was this: thirty respondents (33%) reported that the public value approach had positively affected funding for their programs. Of course, this is self-reported data, so we don't know the extent that anyone's public value work actually influenced program funding. Nevertheless, I would be very interested to hear more from anyone who responded that way on the survey. Perhaps we could all learn how to effectively use public value messages during these trying budgetary times.

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