Measuring and Evaluating Levels of Public Awareness

A Paper Presented to the Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists
Agricultural Communications Section
Fort Worth, TX
January 2001

Donald W. Poucher
Assistant Vice President
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences

Background
From June to October, 2000 a public awareness evaluation of University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Ft. Lauderdale research and education center was conducted. The evaluation was based on the belief that the Ft. Lauderdale Research and Education Center has a low public awareness among its external publics.

The study left little doubt that few formal or planned/external relations activities at the center resulted in a situation where the further one moved on a continuum from the central core of faculty and staff on one end, to the general public on the other, the lower the awareness of the center, its mission and its public benefit.

The evaluation also documented and compared faculty and staff perception of the center and the perception of its various publics.

Finally the observations of the evaluation were used to develop recommendations concerning the name of the center, how the center should be positioned within the community and levels of public awareness/external relations needs including programs and personnel.

Method
The public awareness/external relations evaluation was conducted through a 360 degree assessment of various center publics including faculty, staff, students, former students, clientele, extension faculty, and the general public. Personal interviews were conducted among center faculty and staff and faculty from the Broward County extension which is co-located on the same site as the center. A written survey was administered to samples of students and former students, clientele, and the general public.

Information sought in personal interviews and written questionnaires included the following: first impressions of the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, perception of the mission of the center, level of awareness of the center among the various publics, benefits of the center, descriptions of the center's clientele, and the center's relationship to the Broward County UF/IFAS Extension office.

Results
Questions and Responses

When you think of the Ft. Lauderdale research and education center, what comes to mind?

The initial or quick answer to this question differed among the various groups. The first response of center faculty and staff described the center as "a place to work". Clientele and extension faculty view this center in a functional/disciplinary way indicating that it provided valuable research and information for the various disciplines it serves. Former students view the center as a source for horticultural information; existing students, as research and information source for South Florida horticulture. In the minds of the general public the center is a public information source. Other answers included describing the center as having an urban research function; excellence in education; center for teaching, research and extension; small classes and a peaceful feeling and a long drive from Naples.

Describe in your own words the mission of the center.

As was with the case in the previous question , the mission description of the center varied depending on the group. Among faculty and staff the center's mission was research and education ( teaching and extension) in the various disciplinary areas to serve the people of South Florida. However, the faculty defined people "people" as the various industries which serve the population in general. The staff tended to believe the center's mission was to serve the communities at large. As one would suspect the faculty view is also shared by clientele. A majority of the current students viewed the primary mission of the center as one of providing an educational opportunity for place-bound students and professional workers in South Florida. While former students had a similar view, they frequently mentioned the research function also as part of the mission. A majority of the general public could not articulate the mission of the center as they indicated they "did not know what the mission was". The extension response viewed the center's mission as that of providing information for the extension workers. A significant theme among second and third most prevalent answers throughout all of the groups projected that the center with an urban focus for dealing directly with the problems of the people/home owners in urban areas.

Who benefits from research and education programs?

Among all respondents, the primary clientele of the research and education center programs are those industry groups in the disciplinary areas. The general public/home owners ran a close second to industry groups among faculty and staff, clientele, current students, and the general public. As primary clientele , students rank last among faculty and staff and the general public, third among clientele and current students, and second among former students. The extension service as a primary beneficiary of research and education center programs ranked second among extension faculty, third among the faculty and staff and the general public, and fourth among the clientele, students, and former students.

The faculty and are adamant that they should not deal directly with homeowners or members of the general public in answering questions, solving problems related to individual needs and most specifically, home horticulture needs. The faculty view homeowner/general public involvement as the role of extension agents. While extension agents may generally prefer that view point, in some cases they are refer individuals directly to the research center. When that happens, more often than not, the individual is ping-ponged back to the extension office.

What benefits do you receive from the Research and education center programs?

As is the case in other issues concerning the public awareness evaluation, the answers to benefits received varies from group to group. The general public said they didn't know what the mission of the center was. They also indicated that they received no benefits from the centers programs. Students and former students on the other hand were vocal in indicating education, knowledge, degrees, and certifications as the major benefits that they received from programs. Clientele groups and the extension agents indicated that their primary benefit was the information received in appropriate disciplinary areas and the ability interact with researchers.
Occupation of respondents

The occupation of the respondents followed discipline lines for clientele, students and former students. Industry professionals and managers of varying degrees within the discipline areas are also served. In addition, some of the respondents are state and federal agencies employees in such areas as agriculture, environmental protection, and natural resource management. Respondents in the general public group include a wide range vocations and trades from health care professionals to airline pilots, teachers, homemakers, lawyers, corporate mangers, and, of course, retirees.

Levels of awareness

Except in the case of center faculty and staff and Broward County extension faculty, respondents were asked to indicate individual levels of awareness of the research and education center ranging from "don't know" to "low" to "average" and to "high". Values were assigned to each of the four levels of awareness: Don't Know = 0, low = 1, Average = 3, High = 5. the mean level of awareness of an individual group of respondents was then determined by adding total number of points and then divided by the total number of respondents in that group. The process was repeated in all of the groups. Center faculty and staff and extension faculty were asked to assign a level of awareness of the center and its programs to the general public. Additionally, center faculty staff and extension faculty were also asked to evaluate the level of awareness of the center and its programs among clientele.

The levels of awareness ranged from average to low among members of the general public. However, those levels were higher than was predicted by the faculty and staff of the Center. The extension faculty predicted a much higher level of awareness of the center among clientele and the public than was actually measured.

In comparing the general levels of awareness of the students/former students, clientele and the general public, predictably, the further one moves on a continuum away from the faculty core, the lower the level of awareness.

Needs of the Center

The discussions with faculty and staff, and survey results from the other groups involved revealed a list of needs of the center that are closely related to public awareness. The needs are as follows: a broadened focus to include the community at large; a greater urban emphasis; improved collaboration between researchers and extension faculty; and enhanced/improved facilities, including a site clean-up.

Conclusions

The study results provide a roadmap for accomplishing several tasks at the center including the following:
Conduct an internal educational effort regarding mission/vision of center.
Increase/enhance center-extension interaction.
Upgrade physical facilities; mount major clean-up effort.
Develop and implement public awareness effort for all audiences.
-Change name to reflect greater urban emphasis.
-Increase/enhance community and public interaction and communication.
-Develop system for increasing faculty interaction with nearby educational institutions.
-Develop well-paced cadre of volunteer advocates.
-Analyze most efficient/effective resource utilization for implementing and managing public awareness efforts.

The conclusions of this study were recommended to the UF/IFAS central administration are have been accepted for implementation as rapidly as possible. Specific graphic representations of this study are shown in the accompanying power point presentation.