Focus Forward

NC State University’s largest outreach effort, the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, enters its second century with a new strategic plan focused on agriculture, food and 4-H youth development.

For North Carolina Cooperative Extension, 2014 was a momentous year. Not only did the organization celebrate the 100th anniversary of the federal legislation that led to its formal founding, the state Extension Service at NC State University also embarked on a strategic plan aimed at laying the groundwork for success in its second century.

Leading the strategic planning effort was Dr. Joe Zublena, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of its Extension Service. Zublena recently answered questions about the strategic planning process, what changes are happening now and what’s ahead.

Why did Cooperative Extension at NC State embark on a strategic planning process?

When I came on board as state Extension director, if you looked at our organization as a compass, there were little arrows going everywhere. Everybody was occupied. Everybody was meeting somebody’s needs, but we are working in many, many different directions.

At the same time, we were absorbing federal and state budget cuts by keeping positions vacant as people retired or left for other reasons. And that meant our people both on campus and off were being spread too thin. We were at a point where we realized we couldn’t continue to maintain the size and breadth and scope of our programs, trying to be the master of many, many areas with fewer people.

It was clear in this new fiscal environment, we needed to identify and focus on our core program areas – to get everybody to face north, so to speak. And we needed to make changes, especially in our county operations, that would support our ability to have the greatest impact possible in those areas.

Listening session participant and Dr. Joe Zublena
Dr. Joe Zublena (right) discusses the future of Extension with a listening session participant.

You went through a process of meeting with stakeholders across the state before developing the plan. What did you learn in the process? And how did what you learned shape the plan?

It’s been a long journey – one that started more than a year ago. But what we were after was a true grassroots effort – a democratic effort to reshape our future – and I think we definitely accomplished that.

Our background work included a specific survey to county governments, because they are a huge partner – they pay a significant portion of our county agents’ salaries, and they own the facilities where they work, and they pay for the equipment they use. We received 179 responses to our survey.

And we looked at Cooperative Extension institutions from eight states to see how they had coped with major financial reductions.

In November 2013 at our state Extension conference, more than 600 employees helped us begin crafting a strategic vision for the future, sharing their thoughts on what we were best at, what things we might be able to let go of, where we could find financial flexibility and what our staffing model should be.

From there, we did 14 different listening sessions with thousands of stakeholders across the state. It was very open, and we found that in a lot of cases people didn’t know much about Extension’s work beyond their specific area of interest – you had farmers and Master Gardeners talking to 4-H volunteers and Extension and Community Association members.

Along the way, someone said that, even though we may underestimate a lot of the times what Extension does, Extension is probably the only group that could have gotten people with such different approaches and interests to come together in a democratic process like this to talk about their communities and try to come up with common ground. And that was very validating because it was exactly what we were trying to do.

After the listening sessions, a vision team made up of 45 key leaders throughout Extension, from outside the organization and from our State Advisory Council distilled all that we had heard and found certain themes that were very consistent:
People told us to go back to our roots of food, agriculture and youth. They said maintain our local presence. They said they wanted high-tech, but they didn’t want to give up the high-touch approach we have been known for. They valued Extension’s knowledge and its unbiased and trusted nature. And they wanted us to keep our staff – staff retention and staff morale were important.

The vision team then gave us seven sets of team recommendations, then I worked with our key organizational administrators – Sheri Schwab, associate director for county operations; agriculture program leader Dr. Tom Melton and Dr. Mitzi Stumpf-Downing as interim program leader for 4-H and family and consumer sciences – to develop the strategic plan. I have to give the vision team a lot of credit, because they gave us the frameworks we needed to move forward.

Our job as leadership then was to look at what we could financially afford, what we could accomplish, within those frameworks.

How does the strategic plan affect how we will carry out that service in the coming century?

Our strategic plan calls for us to move forward in three overarching program areas – agriculture, food and 4-H youth development. These are the core program areas where we hear we are most needed, best equipped to provide solutions and can make the greatest impacts on the state’s communities and economy.

And for the first time in our 100-year history, we will have a base staffing model for our county centers, to ensure targeted expertise in each of these areas. Each of our 100 counties and the Eastern Band of Cherokee will have access to a support specialist as well as agents in agriculture, 4-H and family and consumer sciences. The county Extension director duties will be covered by one of those positions.

This model is designed to address structural problems that emerged as we dealt with budget cuts. At present, some of our counties are without that base level because they’ve lost agents due to attrition and those positions haven’t been filled. If you’ve had a lot of turnover in your county, you may have had two vacant positions for two years, while the next county is fully staffed.
We also established higher starting salaries for our agents so that we can be more competitive in hiring. And we set aside funds to increase the salaries of current employees who are under that new starting base. In addition, we have extended our career ladder. Right now, agents hit their maximum promotion, if they are good agents, in six years, and there’s nothing beyond that for the (rest of their careers). So we needed to provide agents with more opportunities to grow and increase their salaries with promotions.

When we did all this, we ended up with enough money to fund about 45 additional positions. If these positions are matched by the counties, we could have 90 new positions. These positions will be targeted to help grow the agriculture economy and will be distributed based on local needs as determined by statistics such as agricultural cash receipts, number of farm operators and population. In addition to these additional positions, we are also looking at area specialized agents to cover larger areas with more focused expertise. An example of these include two positions in commercial horticulture and two in commercial vegetables, because these are growing areas where we recognize a strong need.

We also want to use these area specialized agents to take some of the burden off the base structure by bringing a greater level of expertise in agriculture.

Dr. Joe Zublena in his office.
Zublena looks for great programmatic accomplishments to happen in a short period of time.

Some of the program areas that Extension has put effort into in recent years fall outside of the strategic plan’s core areas of agriculture, food and 4-H youth development. Will Extension stop working on those areas?

When it comes to those programs that no longer align to our core – housing and energy conservation, family financial management and parenting programs come to mind – we realize these are important issues in our state and that there is a need. But we found that few of our county agents were reporting programming and impacts in those areas and our capacity to make large cumulative statewide impact were less, so we felt there were opportunities to shift the audiences for those programs to the college departments that have tenure-track specialists with that expertise or to other agencies or associations with aligned expertise.

In the next two years, we will be transitioning away from those areas not in the core so that when someone calls our county centers asking for help, the Extension staff can direct them to the best places to find information. We don’t want them to just say, “Sorry, we don’t do that.” We want them to be able to point the customer to a reliable source.
Another option is that these areas may be addressed through our 4-H programs designed to build life skills. They could fit with 4-H in some instances.

What can employees, partners and other stakeholders expect from Cooperative Extension at NC State University in the coming months? What kind of progress is being made with the plan?

The coming months, through June 2016, will be a transition period in which we will be implementing changes. There is going to be some turbulence, particularly in making some of these structural changes related to the base staffing model.

Everybody is wondering, ‘Do I have to worry about my job?’ In some counties, the base structure is larger than what they currently have, and they are happy with that. In other cases, the opposite is true. So this is requiring every county Extension director and every district director to work closely with county governments in making the decisions as to how it’s going to unfold.

On the programmatic side, I think there are going to be great things accomplished that people will be able to see in just a short period of time, especially if they look at our expanding web-based information portals. There are dozens of these portals already, and they really are top notch. The goal is to provide our customers with more than they expect – more information, more cutting-edge information, all in one place.

So we will continue to have our high-touch local presence, and we will complement that with innovative online tools that are the best in the country.

Is there anything else you’d like Perspectives readers to know about Cooperative Extension’s direction and what it will mean for North Carolina as we embark on our second century?

An essential objective throughout this process was to make sure that our customers continue to have access to trusted, research-based information, and to exceed their expectations. I think this plan has super potential to position us to do that, while maintaining and optimizing our longtime relationships with N.C. A&T State University’s Extension program and other valued partners. It’s redefining who we are. The college has the research to back us up, and it also has a recent strategic plan that aligns nicely with ours. In five years, I think it will be well known that Extension at NC State University is the go-to place for agriculture, food and youth development – and no longer the best-kept secret.

-Dee Shore

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