June 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1
Providing Support to Extension Agents: The Rapid Response Center in Kansas
The Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) Rapid Response Center was developed within the Kansas State University Cooperative Extension System (K-State Research and Extension) to support 120 Kansas FACS Extension agents. With access to specialists often times limited and differing levels of technology from county-to-county, agents needed a subject-matter based resource to provide timely information to a answer unusual information requests. The usefulness of the center is described using two years' worth of accumulated data and an evaluation of the center by agents. Future plans, including expansion of the center into other subject areas, are discussed.
Staffing Extension to meet the needs of our clientele is a challenging task. Limited budgets and "rightsizing" the system are topics of much discussion. One important element is support to local Extension programs as they provide information to clients on a daily basis. Harriman and Daugherty (1992) advise that "(Success) will require a clear vision, with careful attention to a market niche within a defined vision." The Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) Rapid Response Center within the K- State Research and Extension Service was created with these concepts in mind.
With a staff of 15 FACS specialists supporting 120 FACS county agents serving all 105 Kansas counties, FACS agents felt that they were not always able to make contact with a specialist in time to provide a timely answer to a client's non-routine question. They were not unhappy with the programming provided by specialists, but they were concerned with their ability to provide timely answers to unusual questions that occur on a day- to-day basis. In a recent study of Extension agents' use of information sources, it was found that 77% of agents searched for information that they needed the same day (Radhakrishna and Thomson, 1996).
This study also reported that 94% of agents used information searches to answer a client's inquiry. Information from Kansas FACS agents reflected this desire to provide information to an inquiry within 24 hours, however many felt limited by the level of technology in their local office. If a subject-matter based response system that facilitated information transfer could be put in place to help agents with these information searches, more time could be spent on pro-active programming. These observations, coupled with the frustration that agents felt concerning access to specialists, led the FACS administration to the decision to create the FACS Rapid Response Center, with the primary responsibility of the Center being to provide "timely support" to day-to-day FACS agent inquiries.
Developing the Rapid Response Center
Careful planning was needed to develop a center to meet the needs of the county-based Kansas Extension system. County agents are hired by locally-elected Extension Boards and resources are allocated by these same boards. Thus county ownership/identification with the county office is great. Unfortunately, this can lead to an "uneven playing field" from county office to county office. Though Kansas has had success in building state-wide Extension hotlines (Sisk, 1991), the Rapid Response Center was to have a slightly different focus. The FACS administration did not want to inadvertently send the message to Kansas citizens that "better" information could be obtained by calling a university hotline as opposed to contacting a county agent. Thus, access to the Rapid Response Center is limited to FACS County agents and others within the Extension system. While calls from the general public would not be turned away, the center would not be publicized outside the K-State Research and Extension system.
At the state level, Extension Family and Consumer Sciences consists of three major program areas: Foods and Nutrition (F&N), Clothing/Textiles and Interior Design (CTID), and Family Studies and Human Services (FSHS). The decision to hire a coordinator with experience in the F&N area was based on two factors. Partial funding for the center was to come from an existing salary line in F&N and agents indicated that the most frequent consumer requests were in this subject area. A coordinator was hired who has a Master's degree in food science with college, instructional, and food industry experience, and who was competent in and motivated by electronic information retrieval and translation. The initial focus of the center would be to provide Kansas FACS agents with timely information to their inquiries in the Foods and Nutrition area, with resources from other FACS subject-matter areas to be developed over time.
To determine what subject materials were considered vital, interviews were conducted between the center coordinator and each specialist. Once a list was compiled, materials were obtained for the center within the constraints of the initial start-up budget. These materials included hard cover books, periodic literature from reliable sources, software, and Extension and USDA publications.
Although the Rapid Response Center does not have a programming mandate, it was created with the belief that it could have a role to play in program development. One of the advantages of a hotline service is that data generated by a hotline could benefit specialists by pinpointing subject areas of information for possible programming (Molgaard and Phillips, 1991). Although the Rapid Response Center would be more limited in scope than a hotline, it was created with the belief that this aspect of the hotline model could be utilized if a proper database was developed and maintained.
Other responsibilities of the Rapid Response Center as conceived include acquisition and maintenance of database materials, literature reviews, writing informational pieces and contributing to newsletters, and training relating to information retrieval.
The Rapid Response Center became an official component of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences on August 8, 1995. There was an expected lag time in announcing the center to the agents while equipment and resources were acquired and the coordinator oriented. One of the first tasks was to create an advisory committee that included the center coordinator, Extension administrators, state specialists, members of the Information and Educational Technology unit of the Department of Communications, and county FACS agents. The committee meets regularly to review the center's progress and to plan appropriate strategies for marketing and improvements of the center.
The official announcement introducing the Rapid Response Center occurred in September 1995. During the first four months of operation, information requests increased from 52 to 109 inquiries per month. From October 1995 to May 1996 the center averaged over 100 requests per month. This average increased to more than 160 requests during the summer months (June-September 1996). As expected, the average from October 1996 through June 1997 fell, jumped again during the summer of 1997, and fell again in fall 1997.
Data generated from the center shows no significant difference between inquiries from each day of the week or between mornings or afternoons. County Extension staff account for 85 percent of the inquiries, with the remainder from private citizens, other professionals, or specialists. Even though every Kansas county Extension office is equipped with electronic mail, four out of five inquiries are made by telephone, with E-mail accounting for most of the remaining inquiries. To date, the Rapid Response Center has responded to inquiries within 24 hours 90 percent of the time, and almost one in four calls are answered immediately upon receipt. All 105 Kansas counties sent at least one inquiry to the center.
Evaluating the "Niche Effectiveness"
After six months, the advisory committee decided to evaluate the center's effectiveness. An evaluation was developed by the advisory committee and sent electronically to FACS agents in February 1996. Electronic mail surveys have been shown to be as effective as regular mailings as a survey tool (Kawasaki and Raven, 1995). While the survey was delivered by electronic mail via an agent LISTSERV, agents were given the choice of replying electronically or through regular mail. Sixty-two surveys were returned representing 58 Kansas counties (55% of all counties). Of these, 66% were returned electronically, with the remaining 34% returned via regular mail. This return rate is higher than the 61% electronic return rate reported by Kawasaki and Raven.
Ninety-nine percent of the respondents stated that the center usually or always provided them with a usable answer to their inquiry. The data shows that the center has been very helpful to agents in dealing with their day-to-day questions. For example, 68% of agents responding feel more confident in answering questions from clients now that the Rapid Response Center is in place. Furthermore, 79% of respondents indicated that they now provide their clients with information quicker than before the Center was in place.
There was a concerted marketing effort during the first few months of the center's operation to assure agents that they would still have access to specialists and their resources. This effort was proven effective by the evaluation as no agent said that the center was a barrier between agents and specialists. In fact, 93 percent of agents' responses classified the Rapid Response Center as an information clearinghouse or a bridge to FACS specialists information bases. Additionally, 90 percent judged the Rapid Response Center to be a good use of FACS financial resources.
Future Directions for the Rapid Response Center
The Rapid Response Center initially supported the foods and nutrition area. In addition to answering inquiries to day-to-day questions, the Center coordinator is involved in many different aspects of F&N, including serving as departmental Web-site coordinator, editor of the departmental newsletter, and contributing to the departmental fact-sheet series. Expansion into the other FACS areas was the next logical step.
The evaluation survey was used to provide input for expansion of the center. When asked "I would like the Rapid Response Center to next add resources in what area?" 54% of agents indicated an expansion into topics related to clothing, textiles, or housing. No other subject matter area received more than 14% of responses. With this information, the Center's advisory committee approved expansion into Clothing/Textiles and Interior Design (CTID) beginning in April 1996. Since the expansion into CTID would require information not in the professional preparation of the coordinator, a modification of the service was needed. Extension textile and housing specialists identified areas of that could most readily be handled by a combination of high quality databases and an information technology facilitator (the center coordinator). The two specialists provided access to database materials to answer specific questions relating to (a) stain removal on clothing, textiles, and on household surfaces; (b) routine care and maintenance of clothing, textiles, and household items; and (c) problems with odors, water damage, smoke damage, and so forth. To date, information requests from CTID account for 15% of all requests.
The third major program area of the Extension FACS system is Family Studies and Human Services (FSHS). This is a much more difficult area to incorporate into a "Rapid Response Center" because most of the information from FSHS does not require a rapid response but just the opposite. For example, many FSHS inquiries involve clinical judgements or value conflict explorations. In addition, expertise in FSHS more often includes a "wise guide" role, rather than a definitive best practice rule based on physical science research. This "wise guide" role is less appropriate for an information technology coordinator to assume. This challenge is one of the manifestations of the high tech/high touch dichotomy in Extension.
However, there are targeted components of FSHS that could be served by the center. For example, the area of family financial management has resource material that could be added to the center and disseminated with specific guidance from specialists. In any case, this area will require creative thought and much more discussion before any implementation can be planned.
The Rapid Response Center is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every state. It was crafted to meet the current needs of the Kansas Extension system as individual counties adjust to new technological innovations. Extension systems looking to better serve agents should consider the Rapid Response model if (a) there is strong county identification/ownership of local Extension activities which translates into differing levels of support from county to county; (b) there is a large discrepancy between the number of agents and supporting specialists; (c) state faculty is in close proximity to the center and willing to identify and share resources; (d) the coordinator is committed to agent requests and is not distracted with travel or programming.
In 1992, Harriman and Daugherty gave us their glimpse into the future of Extension: "Envision Extension information centers that provide immediate access to national subject-matter databases to answer both common and uncommon questions ... Future Extension staffing patterns should reflect the difference between clients' needs for information versus education, and provide for a staff with skills, facilities, and strategies to meet those needs effectively."
The Rapid Response Center is a manifestation of this vision. It is targeted to an appreciative clientele (FACS agents), attends to the day-to-day informational needs of this clientele, and is designed to be adaptable to the changing conditions that exist in the system.
Clearly one of the future demands the Center will need to meet is how to better equip agents to perform data searches on their own. How much of this function can be assumed by the county agent and how much this "new vision" demands a new professional role that blends technology and subject matter expertise is a challenge to all systems. Indeed, it is the Extension version of the paradigm change in higher education.
Harriman, L.C. & Daugherty, R.A. (1992). Staffing Extension for the 21st century. Journal of Extension, 30(4).
Kawasaki, J.L. & Raven, M.R. (1995). Computer-administered surveys in Extension. Journal of Extension, 33(3).
Molgaard, V,K, & Phillips, F. (1991). Telephone hotline programming: serving many people on multiple issues. Journal of Extension, 29(4).
Radhakrishna, R.B. & Thomson, J.S. (1996). Extension agents' use of information sources. Journal of Extension, 34(1).
Sisk, E.J. (1991). Responding to clients. Journal of Extension, 29(2).