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December 28, 2009

This I believe to be true today

Substantiating the claims that we make about Extension programs' public value is crucial to Extension's credibility. However, we don't always have enough time in a "Building Extension's Public Value" workshop to assemble the documentation (journal articles, program evaluation reports, etc.) to support the claims embedded in a newly drafted public value message. The purpose of the "Research Agenda" workshop module is to list those claims and create a plan for assembling the supporting documents, or even for conducting new program evaluations or research.
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Sometimes, a workshop group is torn between wanting to draft a public value message that is persuasive--but, maybe a bit aspirational--and one that contains only claims for which the team has strong supporting evidence. I usually encourage groups to be creative and persuasive during the workshop and worry about the documentation later, but not to publicly use a public value message until they are sure it is defensible. Understandably, this guidance occasionally leads to draft public value messages that include some pretty far-fetched claims.

Cynthia Crawford, Family Financial Education Specialist and County Program Director for University of Missouri Extension in Saline County, MO, has a suggestion for helping workshop groups stay creative while not veering too far off into "aspirational" territory. Cynthia suggests telling teams drafting public value statements that they don't have to have the documentation to substantiate their claims today (during the workshop), but they do have to believe the statements are true today. Cynthia reports that this bit of direction has lead to remarkably strong--and credible--draft public value messages in short amounts of work time.

I will definitely adopt Cynthia's "you have to believe it today" guidance the next time I teach a BEPV workshop. Do you have any other suggestions for helping teams "think big" while staying grounded?

December 22, 2009

Reporting by topic, not by table

In the Building Extension's Public Value Presenter's Guide, a small-group activity follows the presentation of the various ways a program creates public value. It is a brainstorming exercise, during which groups record as many ways as they can that their program satisfies any of the public value criteria, listed below.
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How I handle reporting back at the end of this activity depends on time constraints. If I have plenty of time, I ask groups to report back any number of the ways their program meets any of the criteria. When time is tight, I ask them only to share their reactions to the activity, itself (what worked, what didn't, what questions came up), noting that they will use all of their notes from the exercise later in the workshop.

I tried something different last week when I taught the workshop for LSU AgCenter in Baton Rouge, LA. Instead of asking each table to report, one by one, I went down the list of criteria. First, any group was welcome to share ways their program satisfied the information criterion, next any group could report how their program addressed fairness, etc. This approach takes a bit of time, but I think it might help to break up the workshop structure a little bit.

What do you think? Have you taught the BEPV workshop? Have you tried different ways of having groups report back? Were you at the LSU workshop? How do you think it worked there, aside from the fact that I gave confusing directions to start :-) ?

December 21, 2009

Extension, Show me the money! Or not.

While the objective of the "Building Extension's Public Value" workshop is to draft a qualitative message about a program's public value, many of our stakeholders are concerned about programs' financial impacts. For example, county commissioners and state legislators want to know how much a program will cost, and whether it's impacts will reduce strain on the county or state budget. A lot of us, therefore, are eager to quantify the impacts of Extension programs and, wherever possible, convert those impacts into dollars and cents.
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Some exciting work is being done on monetizing Extension program impacts. These economic impact briefs from Texas AgriLife Extension are a strong example, and I know there are many more studies.

In future blog entries, I'll write more about ways researchers and program evaluators are quantifying and monetizing Extension program impacts. However, as persuasive as a dollars-and-cents case can be with some stakeholders, I can think of two reasons to proceed with caution as we pursue more financial and fiscal impact studies.

First, Cooperative Extension does not yet have all the resources and tools necessary to estimate the financial and fiscal benefits of all of our programs. To do a credible job, applied economists, program evaluators and others would need to devote many more hours to this effort than are currently available. Data must be collected and analyzed, models built and tested, reports written and vetted. The likely result of pressuring program teams to estimate financial impacts while providing them with inadequate resources is a collection of poor quality analyses that erode Extension's credibility.

Second, some programs' public value lends itself more readily to monetization than others. For example, a program that helps reduce a county's cost of managing its waste can make a strong, straightforward, dollars-and-cents case. On the other hand, methodologies for estimating the fiscal impact of social capital improvements are less well-developed.

Because so many of Extension's stakeholders are concerned about monetary value, I am concerned that those programs whose public value is more easily monetized will rise to the top of the priority list--not because they contribute more public value, but because their value is easier to translate into currency.

The objective of the BEPV workshop is to make strong qualitative cases for all Extension programs that create public value. I hope we can keep doing this, even while we seek the resources necessary to estimate the financial and fiscal impacts of those programs for which that is possible.

December 17, 2009

Using cultural diversity to narrow an information gap

One of the ways Extension and other outreach programs can build public value is by providing information that allows consumers and business owners to make better choices. In other words, Extension programs help to close the "information gap" that prevents people from doing the best they can for themselves and their businesses.

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In the "Building Extension's Public Value" workshop, I caution participants about over-using the information gap as an argument for Extension program funding. All of our programs provide information, but if we try to use a single argument to justify all of our programs, we are unlikely to be successful. I suggest that we reserve the information gap argument for cases where it is likely to be strongest. Which cases are those? I think that when you can answer "yes" to at least some of the following questions, you can make a strong case with the information gap.

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Take a look at the fifth question on the list, providing information to people who would not otherwise have access. The variety of ways that Extension programs address access includes providing information at low or no cost, bring programs to geographically isolated areas, giving people materials written in their native language, and delivering information in ways other than through written materials.

At a recent BEPV workshop for the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service, a participant suggested that cultural norms could also create a barrier to accessing and using Extension's information. For example, traditional gender or generational roles might prevent some members of a community from participating in a program. When we identify and address such barriers--indeed, when we allow cultural differences to inform and enrich our programs--we can be more successful in closing the information gap and building public value.

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Incidentally, it is not at all surprising that the suggestion to consider cultural norms arose at the Hawaii workshop. Culture is deeply valued by the residents of the 50th state, which has the highest ethnic minority population in the nation. Mahalo, Hawaii, for reminding us to consider both cultural barriers and cultural contributions to Extension programs.