Neoliberalism is often referred to as an economic theory. Nonetheless, it is more appropriately recognized as an ideology comprised of values and practices that work as a “cultural field” (Giroux, 2004). Biebricher (2015) has argued that neoliberalism’s influence on cultural dimensions erodes public participation, which is essential to democratic life. That is, neoliberal policies are increasingly undercutting the symbolic, educational and economic capital necessary for engaged citizenship (Giroux, 2004). Neoliberalism has had a negative impact on the language of democracy, race, education and the media, leading to damaging effects on democratic institutions (Giroux, 2004).
One such entity is the Cooperative Extension System (CES). CES is a community education organization established in 1914 by the U.S. Congress to extend research-based information generated by the nation’s land-grant universities (USDA-NIFA, n.d) to the residents of communities. CES is funded jointly by federal, state and county governments. There are few more democratic public organizations in the country.
Authors addressing Extension evaluation have recognized the changing frame of public funding occasioned by neoliberal policies (Franz, 2015; Chazdon, and Paine, 2014; Lawrence and Mandal, 2016). The dominant narrative of this literature is that in order to improve Extension’s public support, the system’s employees need to measure its impacts and more effectively communicate its value to stakeholders. As Franz has observed, “in contemporary United States culture, society demands proof of Extension and LGUs (Land Grant Universities) as valuable public goods” (2015, p. 13). Kalambokidis (2004) has gone further to contend that communication of value is important because an increasing number of policy decision makers believe that public funding for Extension is justified only when the free market fails. Put plainly, Extension is now facing the result of widespread acceptance of neoliberalism, a turn which has resulted in a broad erosion in citizen support for public goods. This shift has fundamentally altered the role of government in funding public service efforts. The scholarly narrative exploring the effects of this sea change has suggested that if Extension could do a better job of documenting and measuring the outcomes of its education programs, public funders would provide more adequate financial resources.
Exploring the Impact of Neoliberal Thinking on Extension Programs
For my recently completed dissertation, Administrators’ Perceptions of the Environmental Challenges of Cooperative Extension and the 4-H Program and Their Resulting Adaptive Leadership Behaviors, I interviewed 20 CES administrators from throughout the country to document their perceptions of the key factors shaping the strategic and operating environments for their organizations. The leaders I interviewed argued that Extension entities were now required to respond to a wide array of social challenges, including, especially, an increasingly diverse population and relentless urbanization. However, decreasing funding was their number one concern. My interviewees pointed especially to shrinking federal funding allocated to land-grant universities to support CES efforts during the last 10-15 years.
My interviews with Extension administrators suggested that they recognized this change in how lawmakers are viewing public services, as well as how to value them. The leaders with whom I spoke have had to confront a steady downward drift in resources, and in many ways they have accepted that that trend will continue. In response, as a group, they have sought to develop an array of other funding streams, including increased reliance on competitive grants and contracts, fundraising and the imposition of fees for many services that had previously been made available to citizens without cost.
The decline in public (governmental) funding and the companion pressure to provide proof of outcomes has resulted in a CES emphasis on identifying practicable evaluation strategies that can assess program outputs and outcomes. In fact, Virginia Cooperative Extension recently completed an economic impact study in an effort to quantify its ongoing programmatic impacts (Travis, Alwang and Elliott-Engel, 2018).
While analyzing my interview data, an interesting theme emerged. When my respondents reported successes in increasing support, that outcome was predicated on them first having established a positive and trusting relationship with those funder(s). Those ties arose in part in the first instance because public officials had first-hand understanding and experience with CES programs. The leaders I interviewed argued that individuals who were program alumni were more likely to see Extension as valuable and necessary. More generally, my interviewees suggested that individuals who knew of the organization and had personally participated in one or more of its programs were more likely to provide support for it. CES leaders reported they could increase the likelihood that they would do so by developing open and trusting relationships with potential supporters.
Moreover, while my interviewees certainly did not ignore calls for improved program evaluation measures, they argued that they were framing their requests for private support in light of community needs and the Extension system’s capacity to respond to them, rather than, for example, providing an array of statistics linked to the outputs of specific initiatives. I am not arguing that relationships are a panacea that will address the sea change in public official attitudes toward supporting CES. However, if adroitly managed they can provide Extension leaders a path to improve funding stability while also pointing up the importance of public goods, and working to recast the character of demands for proof of program efficacy for initiatives whose outcomes are difficult to quantify. The importance of person-to-person relationships is an idea that needs to be explored as an antidote to the neoliberal assumption that only efficiency measures count and that these can be readily derived for programs of all sorts, including those, as is true for Extension initiatives, that honor the human agency for choice of those participating in them.
Biebricher, T. (2015). “Neoliberalism and democracy.” Constellations, 22(2), 255-266. Accessed at DOI: 10.1111/1467-8675.12157
Chazdon, S. A., and Paine, N. (2014). “Evaluating for public value: Clarifying the relationship between public value and program evaluation.” Journal of Human Sciences and Extension 2(2). Accessed at http://media.wix.com/ugd/c8fe6e_8b2458db408640e580cfbeb5f8c339ca.pdf
Franz, N. K. (2015). “Programming for the public good: Ensuring public value through the Extension Program Development Model.” Journal of Human Sciences and Extension, 3(2), 13. Accessed at http://media.wix.com/ugd/c8fe6e_7c4d46d779db4132943d4fae8f1d9021.pdf
Giroux, H. A. (2004). The terror of neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the eclipse of democracy. Herndon, VA: Paradigm Publishers.
Kalambokidis, L. (2004). “Identifying the public value in Extension programs.” Journal of Extension. 42(2), Article 2FEA1. Accessed at https://www.joe.org/joe/2004april/a1.php
Stup, R. (2003). “Program evaluation: Use it to demonstrate value to potential clients.” Journal of Extension, 41(4), Article 4COM1. Accessed at https://www.joe.org/joe/2003august/comm1.php
Travis, E., Alwang, A., and Elliott-Engel, J. (2018, February). Developing a Holistic
Assessment for LGU Economic Impact Studies: A Case Study. Paper presented at the
Southern Agricultural Economics Association (SAES) Conference, pp. 1-30, Jacksonville, FL. Accessed at https://goo.gl/ThNmBe
United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute for Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) (n. d.). Cooperative Extension System. Accessed, August 24, 2018 from https://nifa.usda.gov/cooperative-extension-system
Zotz, K. L. (2004). “Communicating impacts.” Journal of Extension. 42(5), Article 5TOT2. Accessed at http://www.joe.org/joe/2004october/tt2.php
Jeremy Elliott-Engel is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education at Virginia Tech. His research and practice is focused on the organizational and programmatic effectiveness of Cooperative Extension and the 4-H Youth Development Program. Cooperative Extension is the community outreach and education organization of land-grant universities. 4-H is the youth development program of Cooperative Extension. Before returning to graduate school, Elliott-Engel was a Regional 4-H Youth Development Specialist and County Program Director with University of Missouri Extension in rural Southwest Missouri. He holds a Master’s degree in Education from Cornell University and a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Business Management from State University of New York at Cobleskill.