Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA6

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Who's in Charge Now?


Sharing office management responsibilities.

Barbara M. O'Neill
Extension Home Economist and Associate Professor
Department of Home Economics

Sherman L. Thomasino
County 4-H Agent and Associate Professor
Department of 4-H Youth Development

Bruce M. Barbour
County Agricultural Agent and Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural and Resource Management

Rutgers University
Sussex County, New Jersey


"Who's going to be in charge now?" is a question often asked when a county Extension agent with responsibility for office administration resigns or retires. In most cases, another agent-often the oldest or the one with the most seniority-is appointed to assume these tasks. This method of succession, however, isn't the only one available and may not be best for every county. A shared responsibility model might also be considered.

Administrative Role Defined

In most counties, one agent is given the responsibility to: provide leadership to personnel, prepare and monitor the office's budget, secure and maintain adequate supplies and office space, and be the "official" liaison between the county Extension office and land-grant college officials, county legislators, and affiliated agencies and support groups. In many states, this person also has authority to provide program direction to co-workers. Administrative appointments may be indefinite or for a fixed period of time, such as three years.

The agent designated as office administrator is usually called a "county director" or "county coordinator." In New Jersey, this person is "senior county agent." He or she doesn't have authority over the program development of other Extension professionals because program guidance comes from each agent's university-based program leader. The job description says:

The senior county agent ensures fiscal responsibility at the county level; counsels with other professional staff; maintains effective liaison with cooperating government bodies and agencies; and implements policies of state Cooperative Extension Service and county government.1

The administrative tasks listed above are performed in addition to the senior county agent's regular program responsibilities. No additional salary is provided. State Extension administration estimates that administrative responsibilities average 20% to 25% of an agent's time. Budget problems, clerical vacancies, staff conflicts, or unexpected reports for county or college officials obviously increase the time commitment required. This can result in decreased time available for program development or an increased number of work hours beyond the average 56 1/z hours already reported by agents.2

Alternative Option

The retirement of a senior county agent provided an opportunity for us and Extension administration to pilot test a division of the workload associated with the administrative position. The system we developed is being evaluated annually, with an ultimate decision due about continuing the arrangement.

To provide some background about how the shared responsibility model evolved, let's begin with a description of our office environment at the time our colleague retired. First, the three of us were between 32 and 42 years of age, all married, one with dependent children. Two agents had sole responsibility for their program area. Each agent had more than five years of service, which is a minimum requirement for becoming a senior county agent. The clerical staff and program advisory groups indicated they would support any of us as office administrator.

After being interviewed individually by the state Extension director, we were asked to indicate our interests in the senior county agent position. Encouraged to discuss the decision with each other, we developed the model shown in Figure 1. Our primary motivation was to lessen the impact on any one program area and to divide the workload according to individual strengths and interests. Lack of financial compensation for administrative tasks and a need to spend time developing programs to merit tenure and promotion were additional considerations.

The shared responsibility model divided the existing senior county agent position into three sections: personnel/office management, budget and reporting, and public relations/liaison activities. Each agent chose the area of responsibility best suited to his or her interests, experience, and management style.

The agricultural agent, for example, already worked closely with agencies such as the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Soil Conservation District, and Department of Agriculture. He was the logical choice to be the public relations/ liaison agent. The Extension home economist, a certified financial planner, enjoys writing and working with figures. She elected to manage the budget and write reports required by the county and university. The 4-H agent, with an interest in psychology, was most interested in staff management.

Figure 1. Shared responsibility model.

Senior County Agent
Public relations/liaison officer
  • Attends county department meetings
  • Civil rights reports
  • Affirmative action reports ' Office checking account '
  • Legislator liaisons
  • PR activities
  • Policy liaisons with groups
Associate Senior Agent
for Personnel and Office Management
Clerical staff and office management
Associate Senior Agent
for Budget and Reports
Budget and reporting
  • Personnel decisions
  • Personnel supervision
  • Physical plant
  • Office meetings
  • Supply and equipment management
  • Budget preparation
  • Budget monitoring
  • Penalty mail
  • Monthly and annual reports to administrator

Because our county government's structure requires a "department head" and the administrator prefers to deal with only one person per agency, the public relations/liaison agent was chosen to carry the "senior county agent"/department head title. For this reason, the actual and perceived "power" of this position is still slightly higher than the other two.

Two new titles, "associate senior agent for budget and reports" and "associate senior agent for personnel and office management," were developed by state Extension administration to reflect the areas of responsibility assumed by the other two agents. The state Extension director contacted county officials and explained the model to them.

Advantages of Shared Responsibility

We believe that our model offers agents the following advantages:

  1. Less time is spent on administrative work by any one agent. Instead of one person devoting about a day a week to office management, three spend less than 10% of their time doing part of it. This is particularly advantageous when only one agent is employed in a program area.
  2. It's voluntary and developed to "fit" the participating agents. None of us was interested in assuming the entire administrative workload. However, realizing that an Extension office can't operate without management, we assumed the tasks we felt best qualified to do and wrote a job description within state guidelines.
  3. If can foster increased communication and cooperation among agents. Decisions that were previously made by one person are made jointly. Cooperative programming and public relations activities may also result. Our first joint decision involved the selection of a summer student employee. All agents had input.
  4. Less stress and more personal and family time. Fewer administrative tasks assigned to an agent will reduce that person's workload. Research shows Extension program responsibilities alone consume a large proportion of agents' lives.3 Most report two to three night meetings per week as well as weekend work, especially among youth agents. Lack of control over hours is the most frequently reported problem affecting Extension agents' lives.
  5. It's flexible. An Extension office is never static. Agents come and go. Provisions can be made in a shared responsibility system to delegate administrative tasks to new agents when they've been employed a few years and express an interest in becoming involved.

The Other Side

A shared responsibility model also has disadvantages. First, there are built-in inefficiencies, for example, time spent routing a call or letter to the appropriate agent or the need to discuss an issue several times with different people.

Another disadvantage is that the system is difficult to explain to staff, clientele, and county government officials. The clerical staff, we found, recognizes the senior county agent as "the boss," even if an equipment or personnel issue is involved. This, of course, is due partly to tradition. It's also due to a "blurring" of the roles. Some county officials, used to only one agency head, also believe that the senior county agent is in charge of all administrative functions despite efforts to educate them about the system.


An organizational system that distributes the office management workload is an option other county Extension offices might consider. Agents must respect each other, have a good working relationship, and agree on the division of responsibilities. Support of state Extension administration is, of course, also essential.

The ECOP Task Force position statement, "Extension's Role: Strengthening American Families," states:

Extension organizational managers need to critically examine policies and practices in relation to their effects upon the family life of Extension employees .... Renewed efforts to recognize and be attentive to human and family needs of Extension workers at all levels will result in improved job satisfaction, increased productivity, and continued programming effectiveness among the workers who have made Extension the world's best informal educational system.4

Dividing the administrative workload in a county Extension office is one way to adapt organizational policies to individual employee needs, increase employee productivity, and perhaps reduce the high cost of "burnout" and organizational turnover.


1. Senior county agent generic job description, New Jersey Cooperative Extension Service, July 1982.

2. Tena Lloyd St. Pierre, "Addressing Work and Family Issues Among Extension Personnel," Journal of Home Economics, LXXVI (Winter 1984), 42-47.

3. Ibid.

4. "Extension's Role: Strengthening American Families"(Washington, D.C.: ECOP Task Force on Families, November 1981).