Fall 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA2

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Defining Your Niche

Strategies for local government programs.

Philip Favero
Extension Specialist and Assistant Professor
Department of Community Development and Energy
The University of Maryland - College Park

Theodore R. Alter
Community Economics Specialist and Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

What group served by the Cooperative Extension Service exceeds 9 million people, spends over $275 billion annually, is located in every county of the U.S., and directly funds many of Extension's activities? If you answered "local government," you're correct!

Across America, nearly half a million elected officials serve in townships, municipalities, counties, and other forms of local government. More than a million citizens serve local governments in appointed positions and on boards, commissions, committees, and task forces. Full-time equivalent employment in local government is about eight million. All these people serving in official positions, plus other citizens interested in local government affairs, constitute local government education audiences for the Extension.

In this article, we'll discuss why Extension provides programs for local government audiences. We'll also give some guidelines for providing local government education programs and offer some ideas on how Extension agents can build these programs into their work.

Two themes are emphasized. First, the ideas and guides are for agents in all program areas. Second, because local government education is provided by many organizations in addition to Extension, it's important to define your educator's niche. From a well-defined niche, you can meet audience needs and, when appropriate, develop successful partnerships with other providers.

Needs and Niche

Local government audiences have growing educational needs. Several national trends are challenging local governments and increasing demands for new knowledge and skills. One such trend is a decentralization of governmental functions and responsibilities, a shift away from the federal government toward states and localities. Another is citizens' continuing desire for greater governmental effectiveness. A third is the slowing of population loss, even population growth, in many rural communities. Meeting these challenges will require that local governments: strengthen leadership skills, assume appropriate fiscal and legal authority, improve management capacity, obtain better information and information processing, and know alternative, improved technologies for solving local problems.

Extension can, and often does, play an important role in local government education. Within each state, local government educational needs can be served by an array of organizations and agencies. Educational help is provided by federal and state agencies, public interest groups, professional associations, local government information networks, educational institutions, and private consulting firms. This array of providers, while differing in configuration in each state, is extensive. Yet, the large numbers of people in local government audiences, their variety of educational needs, and the pressures of current trends create a great many educational opportunities. The common experience among current Extension local government educators is that needs exceed programs provided.1

By studying the relationships between educational needs and available programs, Extension educators can identify gaps in educational help for local governments. These gaps, which vary by state and even by county, provide programming challenges and opportunities for Extension-which often has a comparative advantage in subject-matter and programming expertise. Furthermore, Extension can help fill some gaps by working with other providers. Some partnership arrangements will be communityor state-specific, while others will be regional or national.

In each state and locale, Extension must identify its own particular niche, its appropriate place in the network of providers. Whatever that niche, Extension, with its unique land-grant knowledge base, decentralized structure, and educational mission, can contribute significantly to meeting local government educational needs. Thus, the clientele support base for Extension and its programs will broaden.

Ideas for Extension Educators

How can Extension educators initiate local government programs? One way is to build on existing educational skills and knowledge bases. Agricultural agents, for example, often know about natural resource policies and problems in their local areas. Local public officials, meanwhile, are faced with difficult and complex policy decisions over issues such as zoning, solid waste handling, farmland preservation, and water resource management. The high turnover among local public officials means agricultural agents might provide educational programs on natural resource issues for new officials, perhaps in co-educator partnerships with others such as the Soil Conservation Service and soil conservation district personnel.

Home economists' knowledge also lends itself to local government programs. For example, local governments have become more interested recently in promoting energy and water conservation among households. Home economists have specialized skills to aid in promoting conservation. They also have knowledge and experience that can help with the development of local government policies and services for children, the elderly, the handicapped, and other family members.

4-H agents are in a position to promote young people's interest in local government activities and to enhance their ability to contribute to the capacity of local governments to handle issues, both now and in the future. Agents have found local public officials receptive to arrangements whereby 4-Hers accompany and help officials in their duties. Other possibilities for 4-Hers' projects include: solving a community issue like the need for more public recreation services, leadership training with an emphasis on local government, or visiting and then role playing a local government council to understand how it works.

Community development agents, most of whom have already worked with local governments, are likely to find an increased demand for their help because of trends now under way. Growth in the size and heterogeneity of rural communities will create new challenges for effective citizen involvement in local government affairs. Agents as brokers and facilitators of knowledge networks will also be challenged to identify and incorporate emerging electronic databases and new analytical techniques into their efforts.

Some Guides to Programming

The following guides for conducting good local government educational programming offer a working list to be amended and augmented through experience:

1. Become thoroughly acquainted with the structure and function of government in your state. All local governments are "creatures"of their respective states. The legal, administrative, and fiscal relationships among local, state, and federal governments and among the various types of local governments within states vary significantly. Local government structure and function define the institutional setting for identifying and analyzing important issues that should provide the grist for your educational programs.

2. Define a niche for yourself. This requires: (a) identifying the educational needs among your local government audiences, (b) identifying existing programs being provided by others, and (c) comparing the two to identify gaps for you to fill.

3. Fill that niche based on your comparative advantage to serve local government needs. Other providers are unlikely to view you as a legitimate local government educator unless you provide a unique and demanded service. Being accepted as legitimate will help your involvement in efforts that require provider partnerships to meet local government needs. On the other hand, don't be overly concerned about duplication of effort. Local government educational needs and audiences are many and diverse.

4. Keep your local government programming dynamic by remembering that your comparative advantage is likely to change somewhat over time as important issues, your knowledge base, and the efforts of other providers evolve. Review and evaluate your opportunities periodically.

5. Interact, communicate, and form partnerships with other providers of local government education as appropriate. You can better serve local government educational needs by contacting other providers to: learn about emerging issues and legal changes, new programs, and recent publications; evolve cooperative working and programming relationships; and better define and refine your programming niche.

6. Take a balanced educational approach on local public policy issues, without advocating or prescribing specific solutions to those issues. Philosophically, every issue has two or more sides, and in a democracy it's the reconciling of those various sides by citizens and their representatives that constitutes the accepted policy process. Practically, the educator who advocates solutions reduces his/her ability to provide credible, nonpartisan information on subsequent issues.


Providing local government education and doing it well is both a challenge and an important opportunity for Extension. We have a clearly stated commitment to, and at least a 50-year history of, involvement in this educational activity. Over the years, local government education has been established as a legitimate programming area for Extension. Opportunities for doing more of this work have been cited and documented.2

All of us can develop and implement programs, regardless of our major program areas, that serve the educational needs of a variety of local government audiences. In doing so, we can help broaden support for Extension programs. The key to program planning for local government and to strong and effective partnerships with other providers is to define thoughtfully your educator's niche.


1. ECOP Local Government Education Task Force, Local Government Education: Challenge and Opportunity for Cooperative Extension (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University, Pennsylvania Cooperative Extension Service, 1985).

2. ECOP Task Force on Local Government, Cooperative Extension Service and Local Government Education (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois, Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, 1981); USDA/NASULGC Joint Committee, Extension in the '8Os: A Perspective for the Future of the Cooperative Extension Service (Madison: University of Wisconsin-Extension, 1983), 7 and 11; ECOP Subcommittee on Community Resource Development and Public Affairs, Extension CRD Program Directions for the 1980's (Madison: University of Wisconsin-Extension, 1983), 3-4; and Extension Service, USDA, Challenge and Change: A Blueprint for the Future (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983), 2, 19, and 28.