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May 4, 2010

Build muscles, bones, and public value!

University of Missouri Extension's Stay Strong, Stay Healthy program (SSSH) is a strength training program that leads older adults to feel more active, flexible, and energetic. weight.bmpThe SSSH team has created a public value message that they use to generate awareness and support for the program. Here is the message, complete with an estimate of health-related cost savings, excerpted from the program website:

"When you support MU Extension's Stay Strong, Stay Healthy program, participants will increase their physical activity and may improve strength, balance and flexibility, resulting in reduced risk for falls, better overall health and greater independence. These health benefits decrease the likelihood of a participant entering a nursing home, which costs on average $24,455 per year in Missouri. The money saved benefits the community by keeping more discretionary income in circulation locally. It also keeps people actively, independently contributing to society longer."

Do you have a similar program in your state? How do you explain your program's public value?

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?

May 1, 2009

Revise and rewrite

During a typical public value workshop, participants draft a public value message for an Extension program and the presenter and other participants provide feedback. Most groups will need to revise the messages post-workshop before they can be used in publications, websites, or grant proposals.

To help with the revising step, I cobbled together a list of criteria for evaluating messages. Some of the criteria came from University of Minnesota Extension's Aimee Viniard-Weideman, and I thought up some myself. Recently, I have incorporated the checklist into workshops for Texas, Nebraska, and Missouri Extension. With University of Missouri Extension, we went a step further and developed an exercise using the checklist. Workgroups started with a message they had drafted earlier and critiqued and revised it according to the criteria on the list--and any other criteria they thought were important. Each group received some feedback from a colleague from a different program area, and they revised the messages a second time. Some really strong messages emerged!

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The checklist--and the accompanying revise-and-rewrite exercise--are not yet part of the public value curriculum, but I am thinking about including them in the next revision. Do you think your organization would find the exercise useful? If so, how would you change or add to the list? What other criteria do you think drafters should consider when they are writing messages for use in their work?

To get the ball rolling, here are some thoughts I've had about the criteria::

==This is not an exhaustive list: Workgroups may have other criteria that are important for a particular program, stakeholder, or delivery method. For example, some messages will be very effective in print, but should be differently composed for legislative testimony.
==Revising a message will involve balancing these criteria; some will be more important than others in a particular case. For example, there is a natural tension between the objectives of brevity and credibility, and a group might opt for a slightly longer message in order to present some evidence in support of their case. Additionally, there will be some instances where negative framing will make a better case than positive framing.
==The first three items--all about focusing on the stakeholder--could be combined.

Other ideas? Or can you suggest a completely different direction?

March 2, 2009

Learn first, then do

The behavior changes that we seek from Extension's interventions only arise once program participants learn something new: through our programs they gain knowledge, skills or awareness. For example, the Alaska Extension client below is learning how to plant a community garden. (Photo by Edwin Remsberg USDA/CSREES.)

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The diagram that I usually use to illustrate a public value message leaves out this "learning" step. In two recent public value workshops--for Texas Agrilife Extension and for Missouri Extension--I presented the public value message diagram slightly differently than I have done before.

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Many of us document the learning step in our logic models. End-of-workshop evaluations and follow-up evaluations often measure the increases in knowledge, skills, and awareness. And for program evaluation, that step will continue to be crucial. For a public value statement, however, I tend to de-emphasize the learning step. Because I think that stakeholders are more interested in what happened, as a result of the learning, I like to move quickly to the behavior changes, outcomes, and public value a program generates. Learning is part of the mechanism that gets us to public value, but it is not the end in itself.

What do you think? Should a public value message keep the learning step implicit, or should it receive more emphasis when we communicate with stakeholders? Do you think the (not very dramatically) altered public value message diagram is a helpful tool or an unnecessary distraction?

February 19, 2009

Change or stay the course?

You might think that after years of teaching BEPV workshops that I would have heard any and all possible questions and comments about public value, but that is not at all the case. Great input at every stop keeps me thinking, learning, and revising the way I talk about Extension's public value.

Earlier this week I taught a pair of BEPV workshops for University of Missouri (MU) Extension in Columbia, MO. One MU faculty member drew attention to the public value message diagram, which asks for a specific behavior change that program participants adopt. The participant observed that sometimes Extension programs validate the choices that program participants are already making. Rather than inducing a change in behavior, the program serves to solidify an existing beneficial behavior. Imagine a participant in a nutrition education program who has been trying to eat a heart-healthy diet based on information he has gathered on his own. In the program he learns that he is in the right track. That validation steels his resolve, and he continues his beneficial food choices. The public value message for this program might say that program participants either adopt or maintain healthful food choices (or something more specific, such as eat primarily whole grain carbohydrates).

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I can think of a time when this happened to me. A couple of years ago I read a University of Minnesota Extension resource with communication tips for parents of teenagers. A few of the tips were new to me, but many were things that I already was trying to do, albeit instinctively, rather than consciously. Reading the tips made me consciously aware of the way I talk to my own kids, and gave me a reason to persist with what I already was doing right (and change a couple of things I was doing not so well!).

One caution about using a public value message that talks about maintaining a beneficial behavior: skeptical stakeholders want us to direct our program resources toward achieving the greatest possible benefit. Targeting participants who already have made positive choices may not seem like the best investment. Perhaps we could have a greater impact by focusing resources on those whose behavior is the farthest from ideal. To address this challenge, you may need to persuade your stakeholder that potential participants who are already doing well are in danger of reverting to poor choices if they do not receive the validation that comes from being exposed to research-based Extension education. Why might they revert? The positive choices might be costly to them (in terms of money, time, or comfort), or they may be influenced by advertising messages encouraging them to choose a different path.

What do you think? Is maintaining a beneficial behavior a valid objective of an Extension program, or should we always look for ways to make the greatest marginal change?