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October 31, 2011

Looking back at public value in Journal of Extension

I was browsing through this blog and noticed that, while I had highlighted the April 2011 issue of Journal of Extension that featured articles on public value, I never highlighted my original JOE article.

In April 2004, I outlined how University of Minnesota Extension's public value work began in a JOE article titled "Identifying the Public Value of Extension Programs". Here is the abstract:

Government budget crises have compelled state Extension Services to defend their receipt of state and county funding. A key to that defense is persuading citizens and policymakers of Extension's "public value": the benefit from Extension programs to those who are not directly served. This article uses the principles of public sector economics to help formulate that defense and describes how Extension staff have applied economic principles to identify the public value in their own programs. The approach, developed into a workshop for program teams, serves to both sustain programs that have strong public value and identify programs that do not.

October 27, 2011

Extension's bias toward public value

Key to making the case for funding for Extension is our ability to explain why Extension--and not some other public or nonprofit organization--should provide programming aimed at improving conditions in the state. In other words, we need to answer the "Why Extension?" question. When I ask Extension professionals to name Extension's strengths relative to other possible program providers, the first response is usually that Extension provides sound, unbiased, research-based programs. Case closed, right?

At a recent workshop for University of Wisconsin Extension's Western Region, this question arose: Can we really say that Extension has no bias? We do not have a profit motive, like private sector service providers. And we do not have specific mandates, like many local government service providers. But, can we say that our program content that has no bias at all? Isn't striving to improve conditions in the state a bias? Isn't striving for public value a bias? Isn't using scientific research as a base from programming a bias?

This discussion brought two things to the forefront for me. First, we need some language other than "unbiased" to describe Extension programming. "Motivated by the public good"? "Based on the best scientific knowledge"? "Designed to create public value"? I'm not yet sure what the answer is...Second, for whatever descriptor we use, we need to ensure that Extension programming actually fits the descriptor. We need to be certain that we are doing whatever it is that separates Extension from other program providers.

October 24, 2011

What's the point of this blog?

notepad.JPGI started this blog for the following purposes:

"I hope the blog will be a resource for people who are interested in or have taken the workshop, or for those who have taken the train-the-trainer course. I plan to share tips and ideas, and I hope others will do the same. Look for notices of upcoming workshops, new publications, and curriculum updates. Let's share our ideas for building Extension's public value in Minnesota and across the country!"

After three years, I thought it might be helpful--to me, at least :) --to review how well the blog has served those purposes and a few others I've come up with along the way.

Source for my tips and ideas for BEPV trainees: I think the blog does this pretty well. While it isn't the easiest source to navigate, if you read through the entries in the "Workshops" category, you will find a lot of ideas about how to teach public value workshops, pitfalls I've run into, new ideas I've come up with and heard from others.

Source for others' tips and ideas: Uh, not so much. While I know the blog gets hits, I don't get comments or guest blog post submissions. When I hear an idea from someone else, I share it here, but I think reading the ideas in the author's own words would be more compelling. Generally, the blog has not been the community forum I hoped it would be. I am not sure what I can do to remedy that, but I am open to ideas.

Source for notices and events: I am pretty careful to post events, publications, and resources here. Consequently, the blog serves as a record of public value events--at least the ones I know about. However, unless you subscribe to the blog's feed reader, you might not see these announcements in a timely manner. While I usually give out the blog URL at events and workshops, I may start showing people how to subscribe to the feed reader, too.

Clearinghouse for public value messages: I often hear this request. Many public value teams recognize that they should not be reinventing messages for programs that are similar to those done in other states. Teams should share their approaches and messages across states, thus improving the strength of our messaging across the country. Many teams would like there to be a central place for sharing and exchanging public value messages. The blog can begin to serve this purpose, but only to the extent that public value teams share their messages with me and allow me to publish them. I have collected some such messages, and will include them in an upcoming blog entry. Other ideas for a clearinghouse are very welcome.

A reflective journal of my own Extension teaching: For me, this has been the most valuable purpose for the blog. It gives me an opportunity and a prompt to reflect on each workshop I teach and jot down the unexpected questions, the intriguing comments, and the teaching techniques that did or did not work. I hope my teaching is improving along the way.

Do you publish a blog? Is it serving its intended purpose...or some unexpected purpose?

The late-workshop slump

I got some constructive feedback on a recent four-hour "Building Extension's Public Value" workshop that I taught here at the University of Minnesota for NELD. While the evaluations were largely positive, I also heard that some participants grew weary toward the end of the workshop and even "checked out" during the later small group exercises. One participant wrote on the evaluation form, "Content was very good, but a very long time sitting with no activity."
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This lead me to search for activities I might include in the second half of the workshop--which often occurs in the sleepy after-lunch hours--that would get people up out of their seats and moving around. I admit that I am torn, because even without adding new activities, it is hard to achieve all of an organization's workshop goals in the allocated time. So, I do not want to add anything to the workshop that doesn't advance the BEPV learning objectives.

My search brought me to the University of Minnesota's Techniques in Learning and Teaching (TILT) blog. The October 17, 2011, entry is about reinvigorating student learning during the "mid-term slump." My issue is more with a "late-workshop slump," but I'm willing to try some of the suggested techniques. For example, I think I can adapt the flipchart-page-synthesizing technique to the BEPV workshop. It is described here:

"Version 2: Create four flip chart pages, each with its own unique synthesizing question and post each page at different locations around the room. Group students in 3s or 4s and have them discuss the question on one chart, come to a consensus, and then record their thoughts. At a designated time all groups rotate to a new flip chart, review and respond to previous groups and raise new questions. By focusing the four questions on a specific, common-to-all case or scenario, students must draw on all they have studied to analyze and address the discrete components of an overall problem, while also reflecting on how content and coherence of previous commenters."

I can think of two ways this technique might work:

(1) I could use the activity to help participants synthesize the main content of the BEPV workshop (modules 1-4): the criteria for public sector action. I'm not yet sure what the "unique synthesizing questions" for the flipchart pages would be...perhaps something like, "Can the criteria for public sector involvement be used to justify public funding for any Extension program?" Alternatively, each flipchart page could simply hold one of the criteria, as identified in the slide below, and groups would add to each page examples of Extension programs that satisfy the criterion.

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(2) After participants complete the "Demonstrating Extension's Public Value" activity (module 8), but before they refine their work with the public value message template (module 8.1), I could post draft public value messages on four flipchart pages. The messages would come from elsewhere, i.e., not from the workshop participants. I would sort participants into new small groups, as explained in the TILT blog excerpt, and ask each small group to critique the draft messages. Perhaps they could re-draft the messages on the flipchart pages. If there is enough time, I could rotate the small groups through the flipchart pages, asking them to improve upon the previous groups' work, if possible. The slide below, providing some guidelines for drafting messages, could serve as a resource for the activity.

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What are your reactions to these ideas? Is it worthwhile trying to invigorate the second half of the workshop with a get-up-and-move-around activity? Do you think the suggested activities would help accomplish the learning objectives, and not simply add minutes onto a tight agenda?

October 20, 2011

Constructing a public value message in real time

As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, a couple of weeks ago I taught a one-hour "mini" public value workshop as part of the University of Minnesota Extension fall program conference. With such a short amount of time, we really had to pare down the presentation, and there wasn't enough time for participants to complete exercises. construction.JPGMy co-organizer, Aimee Viniard-Weideman, wanted us to at least give the participants a sense of how the construct a public value message. Aimee suggested that we invite a colleague, who had already completed the BEPV workshop, to demonstrate how her program's message came about.

We included a blank version of the public value message graphic, like the one below, except with empty boxes. Prior to the session, we asked Sue Letourneau, program leader for health and nutrition programs, to share a public value message for Extension's Simply Good Eating program. I created a slide that included Sue's text within the message graphic and added animation that brought the text in one box at a time. At the session, I asked Sue to present her message, explaining how her team arrived at the language they chose.

Given the short amount of time, we hope this approach helped participants see how a program team can go about constructing a public value message, even if they didn't get a chance to do so themselves. It also gave an example of a UM Extension program that had completed the workshop, hopefully dispelling concerns that it would be too demanding. Finally, Sue helped participants see how the public value message was related to the research agenda that the Simply Good Eating program team is currently implementing.

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October 17, 2011

It's all in the timing

I've taught "Building Extension's Public Value" workshops varying in length from all day to 90-minute concurrent sessions at conference. A couple of weeks ago, I presented a "mini" workshop for University of Minnesota Extension that was only one hour long...and that was with interruptions for fire alarm testing!

That varied set of experiences, together with recent conversations with Extension staff who are gearing up to teach workshops in their own states (shout out to New York and Georgia!), made me think that we could benefit from an exchange of ideas about timing.

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I have experimented with a number of different structures for the BEPV workshop, but the most common takes about four hours, including a couple of short breaks. Of course, in that amount of time, I can't teach all of the modules in the BEPV Presenter's Guide. But, we can usually complete the content and activities for the modules shown below:agenda.JPG
Note that the last goal is "have considered next steps," and not "have completed a public value action plan." A four hour workshop may not give us enough time to complete the action plan module. Depending on the audience's objectives, I sometimes replace the full module with a large group discussion about next steps.

As I teach in the BEPV Train-the-Trainer course, I use caution when I skip workshop modules. Each of the optional modules was added to the curriculum, because I repeatedly fielded questions on that topic. So, when I skip a module and the associated exercise, I spend at least a few minutes talking about the issue that the module is intended to address. For example, if I don't cover module 9, "Maximizing Public Value," I lead a short discussion about the different types of program characteristics that are responsible for public value outcomes.

If you have taught a BEPV workshop, how much total time did you use? What were you able to cover in that amount of time? If you've participated in a workshop, how long was it? Did it seem like the right amount of time? Rushed? Did it drag on? Would you preferred a different schedule?

October 10, 2011

The unreachable stakeholder?

Last week I presented a mini public value workshop as part of University of Minnesota Extension's Fall Program Conference. When I suggested that public value messages should address the specific concerns of individual stakeholders, a question came up that I have heard several times before. Are there some stakeholders who will never be receptive to our messages about public funding for Extension programs? No matter how hard we try, are some stakeholders simply unreachable?

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I think that particularly skeptical stakeholders pose a challenge, to which we must try to rise. After all, we wouldn't have identified them as stakeholders if their support for Extension weren't important. Conversely, if all of our stakeholders were easy for us to reach, Extension would already be enjoying long-term financial sustainability.

Here are my suggestions:

==Consult with others in the organization who may have a better idea than we do of what matters the most to the challenging stakeholders. External and legislative affairs professionals, regional Extension directors, Extension liaisons to stakeholder groups in your state come to mind.
==Find stakeholders who are sympathetic to Extension, but who are otherwise similarly situated to the challenging stakeholder. For example, do you know of a "friend of Extension" who is in the same line of work, of the same age, living in the same region? Ask that person how they came to understand the value of Extension in their community and what information helped them choose to support Extension.
==If the stakeholder is a public official, study what she has said and written--not only about Extension, but about a variety of topics--to get an idea of what really matters to her.
==Evaluate whether this stakeholder truly is crucial to your program, or if it would not be a great loss to focus your efforts elsewhere.

What do you think? What kinds of stakeholders seem to be unreachable? Have you had success with them? What has worked for you?