USDA struggles with human capital issues amidst budget cuts

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, July 30, 2014 - In a recent congressional hearing, Robert Goldenkoff, the Government Accountability Office's director of strategic issues, warned that “reduced investments in human capital can have lasting, detrimental effects” and that “serious human capital shortfalls are eroding agencies' capacity.” He added that high retirement rates throughout the federal government are undermining “institutional knowledge and leadership.”

USDA appears especially vulnerable. Congress continues to cut the department's funding even while increasing appropriations for some other federal agencies. And with an estimated overall 35 percent of its workforce eligible for retirement by 2017, USDA is hard at work creating new recruiting programs designed to lessen the impact of a surge in retirements. But these programs themselves have been limited by a shortage of staff and funding.

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USDA's own Office of Human Resources Management may actually be compounding the problem. One department official complained that it's tough to recruit good people when the office described the employment situation this way: “Workloads are increased (do more with less), pay is frozen, awards funding is restricted, and training funds are limited.”

The good news is that USDA recognizes the problems. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack clearly is aware of the challenges, telling the Senate Agriculture Committee in May that meeting USDA's obligations is tough because “we have a reduced workforce, we are continuing to stress budget constraints.”

The constraints are obvious. Under pressure to find savings, President Obama asked for $23 billion in discretionary spending for USDA in fiscal year 2015. That's down from $24 billion appropriated for the current year and $27 billion in 2010.

To address the challenges, USDA agencies are testing pilot programs to help their trimmed-down staffs operate more efficiently. But even as USDA struggles to deal with current overloads, the 2014 Farm Bill has added many new responsibilities. That's particularly true for the three USDA agencies which interact directly with agricultural producers and rural communities through more than 2,100 USDA county offices for the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Rural Development (RD).

The chart below shows how sharply staffing at USDA county offices has been cut, with the cuts accelerating in fiscal 2012.

Mark Van Hoose, president of the National Association of FSA County Office Employees (NASCOE), tells Agri-Pulse that “staff reductions in county offices are creating serious challenges as we work to implement the new Farm Bill.” Citing livestock programs as an example, he says “one county in Oklahoma has taken 700 applications with about 1,400 more left to process,” with appointments scheduled through mid-January 2015. He adds that by this fall, the same county office staff will be expected to begin sign-up for commodity programs and the expanded Non-Insured Disaster Assistance Program.

Calling the 2014 Farm Bill's commodity programs “arguably the most complex in history,” Van Hoose says it's important for both USDA and Congress to recognize that “county office employees are on the front line servicing our customers.” He explains that although NASCOE welcomes FSA's recent decision to fill vacancies for over 200 permanent positions, “this staffing level puts us about 2,000 below 2011 numbers as we continue working to fully implement the new law.”

Van Hoose expects improved service once new Web-based systems give farmers and ranchers the ability to interact with USDA programs online. Meanwhile, he says, FSA county offices need more staff, more training on the new programs, and long-term USDA planning based on realistic assessment of workloads rather than on arbitrary budget cuts. He warns that if USDA continues to close county offices and shrink the workforce, “the impact on our ability to service USDA's customers will be significant.”

One irony is that Congress continues to complain about taxpayers' money squandered through federal government “waste, fraud and abuse,” while at the same time cutting funding for oversight agencies.

At USDA, the watchdog charged with attacking waste, fraud and abuse is the Office of Inspector General. USDA's OIG reported in March that in fiscal 2013 its audit and investigative work generated over $1.2 billion in savings, with 54 audit reports issued and 551 convictions obtained. Inspector General Phyllis Fong said, “From FY 2006 to FY 2013, the potential dollar impact of OIG audits and investigations has totaled $8.5 billion, while our appropriations have been just $670 million.” Yet Fong pointed out that OIG has to do its oversight work with “restricted resources” and “despite functioning at the lowest level of staffing in its history.”

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