Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // To The Point // 4TP1
Public Policy Education: A Path to Political Support
We know we've changed. We know our programs are making an impact on modern problems. We know we've planted the seeds to enhance the status of Cooperative Extension as the most relevant educational institution in contemporary society. But how can we convince others?... We in Extension and all parts of higher education, especially in publicly funded universities, have an awesome responsibility to help preserve our democratic way of life.... Public policy education teaches people how to seek and use specific, relevant facts and information to influence and create public policy in ways that benefit the public good with enlightened self-interest.... Public policy education avoids handing out answers.... Extension is the only part of the university that can provide the leadership to meet the challenge of public policy education.
In the late 1980s, the Cooperative Extension System faced a major challenge-staying relevant in a society that was encountering phenomenal change. To meet this challenge, the system initiated a number of significant actions that provided a vision, a direction for the Cooperative Extension System to flourish and continue to make a major impact on society and people's lives.
But, despite the changes in the system's programs and structures, a public perception continues that Extension programs are the same today as they were in the early years, focused on a dwindling population of farmers and rural homemakers and no longer necessary in the rapidly changing society we live in today. I think it's obvious to all of us that the image of Cooperative Extension today is as out of date as the image of Ozzie and Harriet as the typical American family.
We know we've changed. We know our programs are making an impact on modern problems. We know we've planted the seeds to enhance the status of Cooperative Extension as the most relevant educational institution in contemporary society. But how can we convince others? How can we change our image and build stronger political support? We believe the answer lies in accepting the challenge of public policy education-a term we'll use interchangeably with public issues education.
The New Challenge-The Need for Public Policy Education
At the local, state, and national levels, we're in desperate need of an informed populace to make wise public policy choices. Most of our citizens have little understanding of the issues, and even less understanding of the options to deal with them. Our democracy is threatened by those who haven't the faintest idea of how 1993 fits into the long course of human history, or how our environmental and economic practices impact on other nations and theirs on ours.
We in Extension and all parts of higher education, especially in publicly funded universities, have an awesome responsibility to help preserve our democratic way of life. Our universities' most vital role is to help people develop broadened perspectives and reasoned judgments on the critical public issues we face today. Specifically, the challenge for Extension is to take the leadership role in our universities to help rebuild what Harry Boyte has termed "citizen politics." Our challenge is to involve all relevant disciplines of the total university to educate people to participate in our democracy. Our special niche is that we, better than anyone else, are able to bring the people's concerns and the university's resources together to create new ideas.
During the infant years of our democracy, Thomas Jefferson warned: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free...it expects what never was and never will be." Cooperative Extension has agreed with Jefferson for 80 years-the quality of freedom and democracy is directly tied to the knowledge and education of our citizens. The question is-if we can't be ignorant and free, how smart do we have to be to keep our freedom? The answer is: Pretty smart, and smarter every day. To be a citizen means to be a lifelong student.
Once, our citizens were deeply involved in defining the political process and personally creating citizenship at all levels-labor unions; immigrant aid societies; volunteer social services; suffrage, temperance, civil rights movements; political parties. Today, we see participation in many of these "democratic" organizations falling to all-time lows.
But, 1992 may have marked the beginning of a turnaround from apathy to citizen politics. Voter turnout was over 100 million people-the highest in 30 years. Ross Perot's television message for reducing the deficit-even though it focused on painful and unpopular tax increases-got higher ratings than the World Series. People were involved in town hall meetings and debates, demanding discussion of issues and details, rather than personalities. The people started to reject politicians' attempts to polarize issues -pro-life versus pro-choice, pro-environment versus pro-economic development. While many continue to see issues as black and white, others are demanding details showing the different shades of gray.
In the '90s, we may well see the politics of involvement-not Us versus Them, but We are Them. The notion of citizen involvement to benefit the public good, the "common wealth," is beginning to be reborn.The challenge of our times, then, especially for Extension, is to apply Jefferson's warning-that we cannot be simultaneously ignorant and free-to today's incredibly complex world.
Citizen politics means much more than just voting or writing to a legislator. It means involvement of people in public and political action to change the present and create the future. The term "private citizen" is a contradiction in terms. To be a citizen means to think and act in the public realm and the public interest. Let us try to define what we mean by public policy education-citizen politics-by describing some characteristics and ways Extension should go about it.
Characteristics of Public Policy Education
Public policy education teaches people how to seek and use specific, relevant facts and information to influence and create public policy in ways that benefit the public good with enlightened self-interest.
Enlightened self-interest analyzes policy alternatives and their consequences from a broader perspective than the narrow, "not-in-my-backyard" attitude of the '80s. Self-interest says "don't raise my taxes." But enlightened self-interest says, "Maybe the national debt hurts my self-interest more than a tax increase."
Often the democratic process helps people discover that the public good-the common wealth-is as much, if not more, in their own self-interest than they thought before. Citizen politics hears and embraces many points of view and tries to find solutions that strike a reasonable balance among different interests.
Because of the complexity of today's issues, public policy education requires a broad base of disciplines, beyond the Cooperative Extension disciplines, across the total university. Public policy education requires knowledge that's not only scientific, technical, and factual-people also need an informed value system to make moral, ethical, and political judgments. This means a liberal education to discover those values-beyond the facts of the current situation.
Public policy education bridges the gap between the "experts" and the people. The experts may have technical answers- while the public sees things in moral and political terms. Neither perspective can resolve problems or address major issues in a vacuum. The challenge is to bring the public together with the "experts" so that each side understands and respects the other's point of view. In a sense, it means making the public the experts.
Public policy education avoids handing out answers. Reasoned judgments require hard work on the part of both the experts and the people. We in Extension aren't the ones who hand out the information and prescribe the process, but rather the ones who teach the people how to get the information and define the process.
Public policy education requires new linkages and coalitions with a wide range of interest groups and organizations-much wider than our traditional cooperators. No single sector-government, business, nonprofit, or citizen/volunteer-can resolve issues alone. Extension can provide the forums that bring these sectors together to address all aspects of an issue.
A mayor in an urban area of southeastern Wisconsin bordering the Chicago metro area told us how Extension had helped resolve an urban sprawl conflict between land developers and environmentalists. We brought together local officials, citizens, and environmentalists with developers, business people, transportation planners, and land use experts. Together, they're working on a growth management plan that balances economic benefits against costs to the environment and quality of life.
Extension is the only part of the university that can provide the leadership to meet the challenge of public policy education. If we meet this challenge, it's a path to political support-with politicians, with our cooperators, and within the university.
A resident of a small town in rural Wisconsin told us Extension had helped with a major issue-mountains of garbage and the risk of hazardous waste pollution-when their local landfill was closed. This was only one of 300 landfill closings in the state. First, we assembled faculty from many disciplines to address all aspects of the solid and hazardous waste issue- engineering, government, soil science, natural resources, and law. Then we brought these experts together with local citizens and town officials to help them assess the costs and benefits of various strategies.
Path to Political Support
Earlier, we mentioned the outdated image of Extension. But a relevant image is attainable only when you have programs that people value. If we focus on the issues that affect people, then the public, media, and politicians will sit up and take notice. The benefits of an effective public policy education program also include broader support within the university. Today's complex public policy issues require that we expand our focus to include the entire range of disciplines throughout the university.
We can't focus on priority issues like economic development, health care, water quality, sustainable agriculture, waste management, child care, housing, drugs, crime, urban sprawl, school dropouts, teen pregnancy, and welfare reform if we can't draw on all the expertise of the total university. If we can do this, we'll restore the priority and credibility of Cooperative Extension within the total university.
Every organization contains the seeds of its own destruction. If we fail to focus the university's public service mission, programs, and structures to meet the drastic changes affecting society, we will nurture fertile ground for those seeds to grow.
If we don't take the risk and tackle controversial issues, we're doomed to mediocrity, or worse, termination. Playing it safe is the biggest risk of all. These are the benefits-a broader base of resources, a more credible image, new coalitions, and stronger public and political support. But the ultimate payoff is a more enlightened populace and a democratic society that works better.