Making an Informed Decision: A Guide to Extension Project Prioritization

Making an Informed Decision: A Guide to Extension Project Prioritization

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Debra Hansen, WSU Extension County Director and Associate Professor, Community and Economic Development Unit, Washington State University Extension, Dr. Rebecca Sero, Evaluation Specialist and Assistant Professor, Washington State University Extension
Responding to difficult and complex issues is a big part of what Extension does, but making decisions for how to address these issues presents its own problems. This publication is provides a framework for examining the rationale being a decision, leading to more thoughtful, efficient decision-making.
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Extension is often asked by stakeholders to respond to difficult and complex issues and tasks. Making those decisions includes a three-part obligation according to McDowell (2001) because the purpose of the Cooperative Extension Service is the following:

  • To seek to know the problems of ordinary people and bring those problems to the attention of the researchers.
  • To deliver functional education, based on the best scholarship available, to ordinary people, and to help solve their problems.
  • To collect political support from the beneficiaries of Extension programs in order to fund the continued research and education of ordinary people of the society—not just, or even primarily, farmers.

Responding to all of the identified problems with the above criteria is not feasible in terms of capacity and resources (e.g., time or dollars). To function in the most effective manner, it is necessary to be selective and allocate resources to those programs and projects with the best potential for positive impact and/or public value (Moore 1995). As a result, it becomes imperative to ensure project decisions are made only after considering multiple factors.

The Making an Informed Decision Guide has been developed to help direct decision-making for program and project planning through the use of specified criteria. The Guide provides a framework to examine the rationale behind each criterion to lead a decision-maker to a thoughtful and efficient decision. By using the eight criteria identified, projects which should take precedence when it comes to staff resources and effort can be identified.

The process for choosing the eight criteria within The Guide included input from a number of sources, including the goals of the Cooperative Extension Service as determined by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, resources outlined by eXtension, and years of Extension service experience (McDaniel 2013). Additionally, an extensive literature review was conducted to understand the most relevant issues currently facing Extension, as well as the response to these issues from Extension programs around the nation. Topics explored included how to conduct successful Extension programming, the value of Extension, Extension branding, the best way to engage with stakeholders, how to create effective partnerships, and so forth.

It should be noted that no single piece of literature clearly identifies these criteria, thus making the Making an Informed Decision Guide even more valuable.

Another important aspect of Extension work is maintaining positive relationships with community stakeholders and one strategic way to do this is by maintaining open lines of communication. Once a decision has been made, this guide can also be used to effectively communicate the rationale behind that decision. This is an especially important step to take with stakeholders whose proposed projects are requesting resource allocation beyond current means or mission boundaries.

Finally, The Guide can be used to ensure that Extension partners are cognizant of the organizational priorities and mission. By sharing the Making an Informed Decision Guide with community stakeholders, it helps to clarify the Extension mission by providing a structure for conversations with stakeholders, partners, funders, and even other Extension staff. The tool can be downloaded from the WSU Extension Evaluation Resources website.

How to Use the Guide

The Making an Informed Decision Guide helps Extension decision-makers apply an objective rating scale to proposed programs or projects. Using an eight measure rubric, decision-makers rate a proposed program or project on a scale of 0 to 5 within each criterion. See Figure 1 for the format of the rating scale.

The Guide also affords decision-makers the ability to give priority to different criteria depending upon the context of the program or project. Using a scale of 3, 2, or 1, the criteria can be weighted according to level of importance based on project, program, office, or stakeholder requirements. The criteria that are the most important within the context of the program or project would be weighted with a 3, those of moderate importance would be weighted a 2, and those that are of the least importance would be weighted a 1. It should be noted that when using the weighting option, it is recommended that no more than four criteria receive a rating of 2 or 3. (See Figure 2 for the weighted scale.) Proposals that have an unweighted score of 24 (or a weighted average of at least 42) represent programs and projects that are more likely to yield positive outcomes and therefore may merit allocation of resources.



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