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Private Extension - Are We Moving Forward?

Roger Standen

Rendell McGuckian, PO Box 2410, Bendigo Mail Centre, Vic. 3554
Email:
rogers@rendellmcguckian.com.au

Introduction

Creating a Climate for Change in Extension implies that there is recognition of the need to change. Change to what, from what, and why?

The brief for this paper requested a private consultant's view on:

  • planning extension in research;
  • extension outcomes versus expectations;
  • evaluation as a dynamic part of extension projects; and
  • the implications for private and public sector extension over the next 10 years.

There are some common themes running through all these issues that relate to collaboration and partnership. But first let us look at some myths.

Some Myths – Some true, some not:

  • Private extension does 1:1, public does group. The issue is what is the cost benefit of each?
  • Specialisation. Private consultants are more specialised. The issue is what is the career pathway?
  • Public extension is cross-subsidised by other programs. The issue is accounting systems to make 'user-pays' the principle.
  • Private extension providers cannot compete for public funds on an equal basis with public providers. The issue is equal access to bidding.
  • Public funds means Public delivery and Private funds means Private delivery. The issue is who has the most expertise to deliver e.g. Pivot funding DNRE nutrient extension, RAS funding private consultants.
  • Public funds are directed at market failure. The issues are more complex.

Sometimes the issues are clear, others less clear, e.g. drought, flood, fire, disease, pest, extreme events (clear), environmental programs (clear), social programs (blurry), education programs (blurry), pump-priming to get things going (blurry).

Unclear boundaries are often caused by chicken and egg situations (i.e. the private market fails because the government provides).

  • Private short-term projects versus public long-term programs. The issues are who has the appropriate structure to accommodate long-term projects and long-term programs need short-term projects
  • Commitment to staff training is higher in public providers. The issue is cost/benefit and value of on-the-job training.

From the private sector point of view, there is a need for a better understanding of these issues so that we can improve the collaboration between public and private extension.

Private and public extension do not need to be seen as either/or. Complementary skills means there is a good argument to work together, but making that happen effectively is the challenge.

Planning for Extension in Research

Research design must take into account how the product of the research will be used. How researchers and RIRCs benefit from the extension of research results is relevant to this discussion.

For private consultants to contribute to extension design there must be:

  • a recognition that they have something to offer. (Recognition comes from consultants doing a good job and contributing to the industry/profession in a way that earns recognition and respect.)
  • have the opportunity to contribute. (Opportunity to impact can be seen as an invitation to participate. However, if there is no pay for the time it is like asking salaried people to make the contribution on their weekends. Industry groups are recognising this more and more with regard to requests for farmers' time by setting fees for input to planning sessions. This same respect must be awarded to consultants.)
  • clear guidance on the outcome determines who is best suited to advise on extension needs for the particular research (e.g. is social equity important or is greatest industry impact the priority.)
  • outcomes versus expectations.

Learning to be very clear about the outcomes of a project at the start is essential to becoming a successful consultant. It is the difference between starting a job with some objectives to work toward compared to a set of outcomes that must be achieved. Consultants manage time and budgets to achieve outcomes continually as most of the work is relatively short term.

Therein lies an issue in relation to achieving extension outcomes. Often the consultant is brought in to do a specific part of the work that has its own outcome, but must rely on the broader program to achieve the full outcome. An example we had was the preparation of a suite of best management practice booklets. These needed to fit into a broader strategy to achieve the final outcome of improved water quality. There was limited opportunity to input/influence how that was done. Expectations were that general extension would deliver what was needed.

Examples of our business managing larger programs include Dairy Business Focus and PorkBiz. Both these had clear outcomes to be achieved in terms of participants changing the way they manage their business.

One of the outcomes was to achieve a partnership between private and public deliverers and specific actions were taken to make it happen. Managing the mix of private and public deliverers was challenging, but both sectors came away with improved skills and understanding of each other's expertise.

Evaluation

Historically consultants have been used as independent external reviewers of projects after the programs finished. Our experience is that this is no longer the case. The healthy approach of building evaluation in at the start of the project and having evaluation for improvement as an integral part of the project, are well recognised. Both consultants and public sector staff take these roles. When these roles are effective, it can become difficult to separate the evaluation from the doing. External management of these processes is therefore often requested, possibly to be 'seen' as being independent.

Evaluation for accountability, that is, ‘did the project do what it was meant to?’ is still required.

Future of Public and Private Extension

What will constitute a successful partnership between the public and private sectors in extension? Over the past five years there have been many examples of extension projects of various sizes that have tried to achieve a collaborative effort between the two sectors.

Our involvement in some of these leads to the following observations about what the success factors are. They include:

  • respect for skills/expertise of each sector,
  • selection of the right people for the right jobs,
  • trust between the people,
  • good mix of experience (with the 'war stories') and enthusiasm of youth,
  • tolerance of difference,
  • agreement on outcomes,
  • quality training built in for all involved,
  • clear definition of roles and responsibilities,
  • commitment to deliver agreed roles,
  • establishment of a team approach where each player respects and relies on each other to perform their agreed roles,
  • very good project management skills in the people responsible for the project delivery,
  • preparedness to spend time when necessary and available to bring people into the team,
  • preparedness to drive through when deadlines and resources require action,
  • acceptance by the public sector that extension is not their sole domain (debates about public good are no longer relevant as they only relate to who pays, not who does the work),

Changes in the public sector toward fee for service work must be handled very carefully to ensure that the competition between public and private sectors is not distorted.

Conclusion

There have been some strong partnerships formed between public and private sector extension practitioners. This success has largely been built on personal relationships rather than a coordinated strategy that sets out a national path for extension. These personal relationships will continue.

Where is the drive to form a national extension strategy?

In the absence of a national strategy for extension, one way of building the relationships further is to have more opportunities for public sector staff to experience how the private sector operates (e.g. through short-term work placements for selected staff). Issues of time and budget management, meeting client needs and a focus on outcomes would all be reinforced.

The demand for management information by our clients has never been higher. A team approach to extension acknowledging each other's strengths and weaknesses will be crucial in the continuous improvement of Australian Agriculture.

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