Building extension’s public value: We can be more convincing

Those of us who work in the Cooperative Extension system tend to love it. Over the past weeks, I’ve been involved in an interview project with older people who have been involved in extension most of their lives, either as volunteers or as paid employees. Their devotion to extension’s mission shines through every interview. From the inside, the value of what we do seems self-evident.

Then we come up against the harsh reality: Extension is heavily dependent on public funding. Many other constituencies, and in particular elected officials and the general public, need to see the value of what we do. How can we convince those who hold the purse-strings that the work of extension has public value, worth spending government funds on?

I recently came across the work of Laura Kalambokidis, a faculty member in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that you start reading other people’s, and Laura’s brings a fascinating perspective to extension.

In an article in the Journal of Extension, Laura raises the issue of identifying the public value of extension. She lays out the problem facing us succinctly:

The current economic climate has placed significant pressure on the budgets of state and county governments. In turn, those governments have compelled state Cooperative Extension Services to defend their continued receipt of state and county funding. Even when policymakers are persuaded of the efficacy of an Extension program, they have questioned whether the program should be supported with scarce public dollars rather than through user charges.

To address this issue, Laura translates economic theory and research from public sector economics to practical issues of extension. What policymakers need to be convinced of is that extension work has public value – that is, why should the public pay for our services rather than being purchased on the private market? The challenge is to show that extension activities are a public good, one that benefits society as a whole (in addition to benefitting specific program participants). In her words: “Extension staff must also be able to explain why citizens and policymakers who are not direct program participants should value the program.”

In the extension programs I’ve created, I confess that I haven’t done this. When I justify my programs, I point to the good outcomes and satisfaction for program participants. But I don’t really look at the public good – how they have benefits  for the larger community, beyond my participants. For example, I’ve created extension programs to train nursing home staff. But someone could ask: “That’s well and good, but why shouldn’t those programs be paid for by nursing homes as a private good? What’s the public value for what you do?”

Laura’s work suggests that the most effective case can be made for public value when there is market failure – we provide something that isn’t effectively offered privately – and when there are issues of fairness and justice not addressed by private markets. Her article gives a detailed process for identifying public value.

To give one example, extension folks typically believe that they address market failure by providing information. But Laura suggests we consider this carefully, asking questions like:

  • Is there a demonstrable information gap?
  • Can you show that other entities are providing wrong or incomplete information to consumers?
  • Does your information direct consumers (and producers) toward activities that have external benefits?
  • Are you providing information to a population that does not have access to private information sources?

Laura has developed a workshop program where she helps extension associations determine public value of their programs and how to present them as such. More information is available on her web site, which includes a blog.


  1. Jennifer Birckmayer says:

    Dear Karl and Rhoda
    This is fantastic! Please keep up the good work!

  2. Michael Duttweiler says:

    Those of you who have been around a while might recall that the plenary session of the last CCE system conference (2007) focused on public value of extension and was led by George Morse of Univ. of Minnesota using materials developed by Laura Kalambokidis. A brief overview of her materials was the basis for a June 2009 webinar that is recorded and available for viewing at:

    Note that you will need to login to view the presentation. If you haven’t been to our Moodle sites before and lack a username and password, you can create an account on the login page. Mike D.

    • Karl says:


      Many thanks for this information! By the way, apparently one can click “log in as guest” and view the materials without registering (for those who want to save time).


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