Last week I shared a portion of a recently completed ISU Extension needs assessment. This week we share additional needs assessment information collected from 18 focus groups held this past summer.
Extension is broadly perceived as serving youth and agricultural interests. Yet once past this more general image, it's truly what people know and how they know Extension that tends to dictate perception. Their awareness of Extension also is dictated by how individuals come in contact with the organization. As one participant noted, "Extension serves a wide variety of people." Those having contact with nutrition programs, or financial literacy, or community development have different perceptions of what Extension is and what it means to the state. While the broad perception remains youth and agriculture, the emerging reality appears linked to very individualized experience or contact or a personal relationship with an Extension practitioner.
4-H and youth development is seen as a legacy feature and a perceived broadening need that ISU Extension should address. Participants said Extension has done so much, in the past and present, but so much more needs to be done with Iowa's youth. There is a strong association between Extension's youth programming and the future of Iowa. Extension was encouraged to go beyond its traditional youth programs to engage increasing numbers of young people in an increasing variety of ways. This finding suggests a youth focus may help to drive Extension growth in two ways. First, youth are the future and organizational loyalty gained early tends to stick. Second, the public support for youth education, leadership opportunities, and activities appears to be positively associated with Extension and potentially associated with public resource support.
The focus group participants indicated that Extension serves two distinct and different roles: Extension acts as a facilitator and convener, and also provides information, education, and research to help Iowans better understand, adapt, and respond to key issues. ISU Extension is perceived as a neutral party, and an organization that can be trusted. When Extension is present in discussions, etc., there is a perception of professionalism and trust. The trust is based upon a tradition and expectation that the university information and education is balanced. Thus, as a convener/facilitator, Extension can take on a role to help individuals, organizations, or communities to work together. This same neutrality also is a hallmark of Extension's role as a source of information and education.
When it comes to how ISU Extension provides services, focus group respondents want a traditional Extension system that can call a meeting to educate or coordinate local activities, but also agile enough to use the latest technology to get current research-based information to the people who need it.
While it cannot be all things to all people, ISU Extension will need to continue to identify the needs of existing and new clientele and continuously adapt its systems to address those needs. The focus groups seemed to suggest that ISU Extension should be agile in identifying educational opportunities for all Iowans, and provide for a variety of modes to reach multiple types of clientele. Such a finding leads to a need for more agile methods for responding in real time. The point where programming innovation must occur appears decentralized in the current and future environments. Field personnel in particular must be tuned, trained, and mandated to understand the opportunities and needs in their location.
What do you think? Do you agree with the focus groups' perceptions and suggestions? A downloadable copy of this report is available at www.extension.iastate.edu/aboutus.html