February 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA5
Proactive Accountability: Building Relationships with Legislators
Ohio State University Extension uses a proactive approach when working with legislators and other decision makers. This approach is built on a philosophy that Extension's best asset is strong programs that make a real positive difference in the lives of people at the local level. The legislative contact is designed to present a consistent message and provide opportunities for legislators to provide input into program and organizational direction. The message is that OSU Extension and OARDC are good stewards, the programs have positive impacts on people, certain issues have greater importance in different parts of the state, and legislators are appreciated. This approach has been very successful in the 1990s.
During the 1990s, Ohio State University (OSU) Extension has seen significant growth in appropriations from the state. Average county appropriations have increased at annual rates above inflation. These increases are above the inflation matching increases received by most other state programs, including higher education. This success story has not happened by accident, but has been due to improved communications and relationships with legislators at the local level. A concentrated effort to know legislators and their most important agenda items along with how Extension can work with them on these issues is an important part of the process.
To better understand the system used by OSU Extension it is important to understand the basic philosophy which guides the legislative efforts. OSU Extension: (a)believes its greatest asset is strong programs at the local level that make a positive difference in the lives of the people we serve, (b) promotes and supports open, honest communications between ourselves and our funding sources, (c) seeks and listens to advice from the people we serve, (d) strives to be a good steward of the funds in which it is entrusted, (e) believes its message is best communicated to funding sources by the people who benefit from its programs, and (f) strives to inform funding sources how it has used resources in the past (accountability) and how it will use any new resources which are provided.
OSU Extension uses a statewide systems approach with legislators. This system complements county efforts to keep legislators informed about local programs and their impacts. Legislators are invited to and involved in programs in the counties as featured speakers and guests. Recognition programs provide excellent opportunities for legislators to see and hear what Extension is doing in their legislative districts.
The OSU Extension System
The current statewide system used by OSU Extension for communicating with legislators is coordinated by the college Coordinator of Legislative Projects. This coordination includes the cooperation of OSU Extension, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), the research partner, and the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Extension county chairs. In urban counties, chairs may have several legislators to work with while rural county chairs, who share legislators with other counties, may not be heavily involved in the process every year. The chair may also work with other agents to facilitate the system where appropriate. The parts of this system are:
Legislative Planning Meetings
These meetings involve legislators, state Extension Support Committee members, county chairs, administrative cabinet members, representatives from OARDC (research), other partners, and stakeholders who have a statewide interest in Extension programs. Key legislators advise administrators on how to most effectively share Extension's message and convey its funding requests to their colleagues. Support Committee members provide similar advice as well as helping with priority setting, planning functions, and identifying local people to participate in statewide meetings. Other stakeholders such as Farm Bureau, agricultural commodity organizations, youth and family advocacy groups, and community organizations participate in a similar fashion. County chairs help provide direction on how to most effectively work with the legislators in their counties.
Identifying Key Stakeholders
County chairs play an important role along with their county Extension Support Committee. They identify lay leaders who know and support Extension and research programs and who have an influential, personal, or political relationship with the legislator.
Meetings in Legislative Districts
County chairs, and the chairman of the county Extension Support Committee, identify key individuals, facilitate invitations to the legislators and make local arrangements for the meetings. Local people share impacts of Extension and research programs on their lives. District and state administrators share direction of the system and budgetary needs for the next biennium. These meetings are held every other year as a part of the biennial budget process. Efforts are made to meet with every senator and representative in their local district.
Statewide Legislative Breakfast
County chairs identify key lay leaders from their counties to meet with their legislator at this statewide event held in Columbus. Chairs orient the lay leaders on how to most effectively interact with the legislator on issues of statewide and local interest and how those issues impact the local Extension program. The presidents of the OSU Extension and OARDC Support Committees rotate hosting the event. The president of Ohio State University and the vice president of agricultural administration share the broad vision and direction of programs at this function.
Legislative Assistants Tour
This program is designed to inform the federal legislators' legislative assistants about issues of national interest and how they affect Ohio. It is also an opportunity to showcase the way programs are affecting the lives of Ohioans. The program is typically conducted in August and rotates between the Columbus campus and OARDC facilities at Wooster.
National Leadership Seminar
The National Leadership Seminar brings together lay leaders from across the nation to discuss issues of national interest to Extension. County chairs are asked to help identify participants for this program. One participant from each legislative district and one participant for each senator typically participate. Instruction on how to effectively work with legislators is presented to the participants. Participants then have an opportunity to visit their senator or representative on Capitol Hill to discuss these issues.
Farm Science Review
Farm Science Review showcases many programs within the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Farmers and other agricultural stakeholders from across the state and region participate. The Vice President's Luncheon, held the first day of the Review, hosts legislators, county commissioners, state Extension Advisory and Support Committee members, OARDC Support Committee members,, and other key stakeholders highlights accomplishments of the college.
County Commissioners' Day
This event is held in August and brings together commissioners from across the state to highlight Extension programs. County chairs are asked to invite and encourage their commissioners' participation and to actively participate with them.The County Commissioners' Association holds its summer board meeting in conjunction with this program. The partnership between OSU Extension and the association is a key part of the continuing relationship with county commissioners.
Ongoing Regular Communications
The County chair coordinates this effort with other county agents. They provide information to the legislator about Extension programs and issues within the county. Legislators often rely on information from this source to make decisions on a wide variety of legislative issues and for communications with their constituents. Legislators are encouraged to stop by their local Extension office to ask questions and seek input on issues of importance to their constituents. Examples of these types of communications are awards programs, field days, newsletters, educational programs, and special projects.
There are four basic parts of the message OSU Extension tries to convey to legislators.
- OSU Extension and OARDC are good stewards of the resources in which
they are entrusted.
- OSU Extension programs have positive impacts on real people.
- The importance of an issue may vary depending on geographic location.
Communications should be constant and highlight issues of importance in
the legislator's district.
- Legislators and other elected officials are appreciated.
The office of the Coordinator of Legislative Projects is a very important part of the process. This office coordinates the legislative efforts of the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and all its units. The office staff, including the director, associate director, assistant directors, and district directors are available to County hairs and Extension agents to assist with and answer questions about legislative efforts.
OSU Extension has been successful at raising awareness of the importance of its programs in the 1990s. However there are still several concerns to be faced.
Outside influences on state budgets, such as a recent state Supreme Court ruling on school funding, and state revenue shortfalls could have negative effects on OSU Extension budgets in the future. The system hopes that the strong relationships and communications links that have been established will benefit OSU Extension, the legislator, and constituents.
Term limits will affect relationships with legislators. OSU Extension anticipates that powerful rural legislators in leadership positions will be replaced with more urban legislators who may not have direct experience with Extension. Building relationships and sharing program impacts with urban legislators will be a priority of legislative efforts in the future.