Extension evaluation driven by technology and relevancy

David Broyles Civitas News Service

January 4, 2014

DOBSON — Bryan Cave, community service director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension service, summed up a statewide evaluation the group is undergoing as looking at ways to do more with less, and finding ways to make people more comfortable with technology.

“Basically, we have always had a history of encouraging people to use technology and make changes to improve their lives,” said Cave. “We have to look at what and how we are doing things and see what we need to change. Like any other entity involved with state, we have faced budget cuts. Looking at it realistically we feel we have to prepare for the trend to continue.”

According to Cave, state funding has declined in each of the past three years. He said most local Extension Services have coped with this by combining positions and not filling some positions which came open.

“Frankly we are at the point where we cannot cut any more without losing personnel,” Cave said. “We are taking a look at what we’re doing, how to do it better and adapt to the present (budget) reality.”

He explained that North Carolina State University has held public input sessions to get comments on what the service is doing well, needs improving and can eliminate as well as any ideas for new directions. He said a group of 15 from Surry County were invited to a Dec. 3 listening session. He said the group was a mix of persons new and familiar with extension.

He said he feels technology’s impact has always been an important part of Cooperative Extension and it has become a prime force driving change now.

“When I started here in 1988 we didn’t have a computer in the building,” said Cave. “That’s certainly changed. Now we have computers on our phones. We have to change with this. We want to be relevant and I think we have to look at using technology better that we have in the past. We work with a lot of youth through 4-H for instance and kids are doing a lot of new things through social media. We cannot just encourage change without being willing to change ourselves.”

He said he views the public input sessions a a step in establishing an updated framework to work from. He said NC State is compiling a report which could include recommendations such as streamlining organizational processes and eliminating duplication of services offered locally. He said he anticipates the results of the report to be out by May.

Cave remains upbeat about the potential not only for improvement but new directions for the service and said one example of an unexpected success was extension’s involvement with the Pilot Mountain Pride Program.

“We are still a valued partner in that effort and we had not anticipated the renewed attention on local foods. One of the things I knew but hadn’t thought about was I didn’t hear a lot of comments on reducing what we do,” said Cave. “The reaction was positive. It did convince me we need to market ourselves better though. We’ve been around a long time but I think a lot of people still don’t know about a lot of what extension does.”

He likened the process to an opportunity to not so much re-invent itself, but a chance for the service to find ways to be better at the services it provides. Cave also noted much of what he heard in the sessions represents new technology inspiring people to come full circle to where the service began. He said examples of this are persons wanting to learn skills so they can live simply, interests in growing their own foods and being more self sufficient.

“We are a great information source and the good thing is ours is based on real, well researched science,” said Cave. “My fear in this age where Google is so prevalent is how reliable is the information many of us can reach so quickly. I think we are still relevant.”

Reach David Broyles at dbroyles@civitasmedia.com or 719-1952.