EXTENSION ACCOUNTABILITYJohn G. Richardson
Extension Program Delivery and Accountability Leader
The dictionary uses the words "explainable" and "responsible" to describe accountability. There are other words which can apply as well. These may include reporting, accomplishments, successes, or similar words that reflect a willingness and desire to let others know what beneficial impacts Extension educational programs are achieving. Public programs that are tax supported should and are being made accountable for the funds that are used to support them. These programs must have sufficient public benefits that make them worthy of continuing public financial support. In judging public benefit, "People impacts" are key factors in program accomplishments. This may have always been a consideration, but increasingly, program accountability must focus on assuring that targeted audiences are informed of "people impacts" as well as other program successes as desired by a specific audience.
Target Audience Expectations
While some similarity may apply to all audiences regarding accountability expectations, there can be great differences in what certain audiences desire or require to meet accountability needs. Some audiences may only want limited or highly specific information in order to satisfy their requirements. The case study that is presented in this document demonstrates the different expectations of two key audiences. These differences in information desires of audiences can create considerable frustration for those who strive to provide accountability information. With the differing needs in mind, the Extension educator should address several key factors in order to develop and maintain a quality accountability system.
WHO? One of the first factors to consider is who or what audience will be receiving the information. Is it an internal administrative audience, or is it an external audience? Both internal and external audiences are important, and the needs of each should be clearly defined and responded to appropriately.Some of the audiences may include:
- Government decision makers - county commissioners, county managers, legislators and their aides; local , state, and federal decision makers
- Program donors or potential donors
- Advisory groups, lay committees, and other support groups
- Media representatives
- Special interest and cooperator groups and agencies
- Current and potential program participants, including volunteers, current and past users, members and others interested in Extension
- The general public
- Administrators, Extension staff, agents, specialists, researchers, university officials, trustees, and Board of Governors
WHAT?Another key factor in responding accurately is to learn what the specific audience needs or desires for accountability purposes. County Managers, for example, are fiscal professionals, and may look much closer at concise cost-benefit assessments (the direct and indirect benefits resulting from the tax money spent to support the program). An example of cost-benefit analysis would be calculating the money saved by farmers through reduced pesticide applications, as a result of an educational program that helped the farmers understand the critical weather influences that affect leafspot development in peanuts. Another more direct assessment may be a calculation of the money saved by the county in waste handling expense as a result of educational programs that help citizens reduce levels of household waste produced. For some programs, indirect benefits can also be identified. However, in developing cost- benefit assessments, it is important to recognize that in many situations, Extension may not be the only information provider. Also in making cost-benefit assessments, one must take into account both positive and negative outcomes. For additional information on developing cost-benefit estimates, refer to Agricultural and Extension Education fact sheet SD-8, which is available from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
Other audiences who desire accountability information, however, may have little interest in an in-depth financial analysis, and may be more interested in positive public opinions and perceptions regarding the program or agency. Also, some reports are required by law, and must be provided accurately for those who collect and maintain required information.
WHEN? There are many timetables and requirements for accountability information. This fact should strengthen our awareness of accountability needs whereby a continuous flow and reservoir of information is maintained for scheduled reports and other accountability functions. Awareness of these widely varying needs for when to provide information to targeted audiences is a necessary part of organizational accountability.
HOW? Accountability information may be presented through electronic means, oral reports, written documents, pictorially, or through media reports. The key factor is to provide the information to the targeted audience in the format the audience desires. The County Manager, for example, receives information from many agencies, and may desire a quick oral briefing, a short briefing paper no more than 1-2 pages in length, fax, or e-mail message. This type of reporting may also be requested by some boards of County Commissioners, while others may desire monthly or annual written or oral reports only. The general public is likely to be interested in receiving information in a variety of ways such as newspapers, pamphlets, displays or other means which will quickly and clearly convey the accountability message. Regardless of the audience, the Extension educator should be sensitive to the particular wishes and needs of that audience as to the means and methods of providing information to them.
NEEDS? One of the most important factors in providing information for targeted audiences is to determine what the audience needs to know. There are several factors that should be considered in this process. These may include:
- What kinds of decisions do they make? Of the information available, what do they need to be able to make educated decisions?
- What do they expect - of the program, the organization, the assessment process, of the personnel?
- What do they already know?
- What information will they accept as valid and convincing?
- What uses will they make of the information?
- When will information be most useful to them?
Report FormatWhen developing program reports, a focus on the factors of Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why may be desirable.
- Who: Who Participated and/or who benefitted?
- What: What is the program, what does it consist of, and what are its contributions and impacts?
- When: When did the program occur and when are benefits accruing?
- Where: Where was or is the program happening?
- How: How were the impacts measured?
- Why: Why should funds be used to provide the program?
Regardless of the type of report, there are several key points to address in its preparation and delivery. These include:
- Provide only important relevant information. County Commissioners and County Managers have expressed the desire to only receive information that is "county specific" which directly impacts the county (Sherman, 1995).
- Be brief and concise. For longer reports, an abstract or executive summary should be provided.
- Provide the audience only what it needs. Too much information may confuse or bore the audience.
- Know the audience and construct the report to coincide with the interests of the group. For lay audiences, short, concise, non-technical and easy to understand information should be provided. Present the information to relate to the particular needs or interests of the audience.
- Use quotations or testimonials. For public organizations, direct evidence of benefit of programs when stated by the individual or groups benefiting usually relays a strong message that carries impact.
- Accountability information should be supported by acceptable evidence.
This case study provides information relating to a real situation in which local funding was threatened. The description was provided by a County Extension Director who was faced with this dilemma.
"In Red county during budget time, the County Extension Director (CED) was asked to provide the County Manager and County Board of Commissioners information about 'What have you done for Red county'. The CED programmed in the usual way of doing things, and developed a presentation built around what each of the agents had done during the past year. Each agent developed their own presentation and went into detail about each class, workshop, meeting, etc. indicating attendance and demographic variables; in other words, like an internal organizational Program Review.
The results? The County Manager was not happy and the County Commissioners were not satisfied either. The County Manager wanted information about the amount of money generated as a direct result of Extension's educational program efforts; money saved by clientele; value of dollar expenditures by county government ( what does the county get for each dollar it spends). The County Commissioners wanted to know about real people, those Extension worked with, and what the people themselves had to say about the programs, rather than what the agents had to say by using numbers and charts."
The impact of this misunderstanding in providing accountability information resulted in a significant budget reduction for the local Extension unit.
In summary, the County Director stated that: "The key point to learn from this simple case study is to attempt to identify just what each party wants and how they want to receive it."
Binnendijk, A, (editor) (1994). USAID Evaluation News. 6:1. U. S. Agency For International Development, Washington, DC.
Cook, J, J. VanSant, L. Stewart, and J. Adrian (1994). Performance Measurement: Lessons Learned From Other Agencies. Research Triangle Institute, Research Triangle,
Guralnik, D. (editor) (1976). Webster's New World Dictionary. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio.
North Carolina. In USAID Evaluation News, 6:1, U. S. Agency For International Development, Washington, DC.
Sherman, S., (1995). Assessment of the Educational and Informational Needs of County Governments in North Carolina. NC Cooperative Extension Service, NC State University, Raleigh, NC.
Taylor-Powell, E. (1989). Analyzing and Reporting Results. Texas Agricultural Extension Service, College Station Texas. Extension Publication:D-1373
For additional information contact the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, 117 Ricks Hall, Campus Box 7607,
North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695-7607
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PUBLICATION NUMBER AEE 96-02 Revised
Peer Reviewed by: Patricia Barber, Clyde Chesney, Allen Caldwell, Ronald Jarrett, Richard Phillips, Gwyn Riddick, and James Stephenson, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, and David M. Jenkins and Ronald W. Shearon, Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, North Carolina State University
John G, Richardson, Ed.D.
Extension Program Delivery and Accountability Leader
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
N.C. State University, Raleigh, NC 27695 USA
Phone : (919) 515-2380
Fax: (919) 515-1965
Created June 6, 1996
Updated May 15, 1997
created by Michael Ebbs