Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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What's Our Image?


Perceptions of county commissioners.

Barbara A. White
Kellogg Doctoral Fellow
Adult and Higher Education
Montana State University-Bozeman

Ralph G. Brockett
Assistant Professor
Adult and Higher Education
Montana State University-Bozeman


A unique partnership exists between county commissioners and the Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service (MAES) regarding the funding, employment, and administration of county Extension staff. These commissioners are involved in government at the local "grass-roots" level, being elected officials representing certain districts within a county. The county is the basic unit in the MAES where most programs are developed and actual teaching is done, so we can't afford to take the commissioners' support for granted. They're among the first to be affected by changes in county programs and thus should be involved in determining needs.1

The commissioners have a tremendous responsibility as they review issues and set policies to meet the needs of their counties. They have definite influence within their counties, being the primary policy-setting board.2 The responsibilities include: tax levies, road and bridge maintenance, budget appropriations for county Extension personnel and office maintenance, employment of county employees, and disbursement of county funds. But, their degree of influence is greatly affected by state legislation and the economy of both the state and the nation.3 County commissioners have a difficult role in prioritizing programs. Therefore, their perceptions of MAES are important.

Perception Study

The major purpose of this study was to determine the perceptions of county commissioners toward the MAES, with respect to both county and state Extension administration. The partnership that exists is one in which county and state government provide employment, funding, and administrative support to county Extension staff on a joint basis. The exact percentage of funding varies throughout the state, but, in general, the state contributes the majority of funding for the Extension Service. This significant partnership makes it imperative to further study this relationship.

The study examined: (1) the quality of county Extension Service programs, (2) their working relationships with county Extension staff, and (3) their working relationships with state Extension administration. I also wanted to know if there were any differences in perceptions related to population, length of service, and Extension committee involvement. In Minnesota, two commissioners a year are appointed to the county Extension committee to promote involvement and representation.


The questionnaire I developed had four parts. Part I surveyed background information: age, years as commissioner, education, occupation, and Extension committee involvement. Part II sought opinions on the quality of Extension programs at the county level. Parts III and IV studied working relationships between commissioners and Extension staff, at both county and state levels. The five response categories ranged from "very well" to "very poor."

Two county commissioners were randomly selected from each of the 89 counties in Minnesota, for a sample of 178. The response rate was 79.3%. Chisquare was used to test for differences in perceptions according to county population, length of service, and involvement on county Extension committees.


More than two-thirds of the respondents had served six or more years as county commissioners, and 71 % were over the age of 50. Just over half had received some education beyond high school and 47.8% were directly involved with farming or an ag-related business. About one-third had never served on county Extension committees, with 15.9% presently serving and 49.3% having served in the past.

Perceptions about the quality of MAES programs conducted at the county level were very favorable. They indicated that programs in agriculture, 4-H, and home economics were good, and that the county Extension staff adapts technological changes well. The lowest rating was in the program area of community and natural resource development. Table 1 reveals responses about the quality of programs at the county level.

The commissioners indicated that county Extension staff worked well with them in the areas of communicating budget requests, keeping them informed about programs, and involving them in planning programs. About 82% indicated adequate opportunities existed to review county Extension programs.

There were more mixed perceptions about the professional working relationships between county commissioners and the state Extension administration. The majority of the commissioners were satisfied with the supervising, employing, and funding of county Extension staff by state Extension staff. Concerns were expressed about the funding partnership between county and state and the opportunities for annual evaluation of county Extension staff. The county's share of the Extension budget ranges from 20% to 50% toward agents' salaries. These salaries are determined by evaluation input from the county Extension committee and co-workers.

Table 1. Quality of Extension programs.

This table has five columns with the following responses for each column: 5 =very well, 4 =well, 3= adequate, 2= poor, and 1 =very poor. The frequency counts for each response are listed under the appropriate column, for each question.

Questions 5 4 3 2 1
1. How well-qualified is the county Extension staff in your county to meet the needs of its clientele? 52 51 31 1 3
2. How well does the county Extension staff provide educational programs and services that meet the needs of young people in yourcounty? 44 61 31 1 1
3. How well does the county Extension staff provide educational programs and services that meet the needs of agricultural clientele in your county? 40 69 24 3 2
4. How well does the county Extension staff in your county keep up to date in relation to technological changes and adapt programs to meet those changes? 37 67 28 4 2
5. How well I does the county Extension staff provide educational programs and services that meet the needs of home economics and family living in your county? 33 61 38 1 2
6. How well does the county Extension staff provide educational programs and services that meet the community and natural development needs in your county? 11 46 62 14 1

On the basis of population and length of service, no significant differences were found concerning program quality or working relationships on the county level. Only two responses revealed significant differences; these dealt with employment and evaluation of county Extension staff done jointly by county commissioners with the state Extension staff. Those with Extension committee experience were more satisfied with these relationships than those without such experience.


In summary, I'd like to point out that:

  1. Responses about the quality of county Extension programs in the traditional program areas of agriculture, 4-H, and home economics were very favorable. There were some concerns about community and natural resource development.
  2. Communication appeared to be good between county commissioners and county Extension staff, but more involvement in reviewing programs was suggested.
  3. County commissioners work well with state Extension staff, but indicated a need for improved funding and evaluating arrangements.
  4. Working relationships with county Extension staff were rated more favorably than those with state Extension staff. This is probably because the commissioners are further removed from the state staff.
  5. County population and length of service didn't significantly affect perceptions of program quality or working relationships on the county level.
  6. Those with county Extension committee experience tended to view relationships with state staff more positively than those who didn't have such experience.


The study's findings reveal a number of implications:

  1. County commissioners need to be more involved with the state Extension administration to strengthen professional working relationships.
  2. County Extension staff should review the findings of this study with their county Extension committee for use in program planning and development.
  3. State Extension staff should encourage more involvement of county commissioners on county Extension committees.


1. Herbert S. Duncombe, Modern County Government (Washington, D.C.: National Association of Counties, 1977).

2. Clarence N. Stone, "Systematic Power in DecisionMaking,"American Political Science Review, LXXIV (December 1980), 978-90.

3. Anne William, "Relationships Between Local Government Structural Influence and Policy Outcomes," Rural Sociology, XLV (Winter 1980), 621-43.