Dismantling the USDA from within

One Agriculture Department employee describes how changes to the workforce degrades the agency’s ability to meet its mission.

Feds at the Agriculture Department — like feds everywhere — are taking hit after hit these days. According to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, we are “One USDA: team, team, team” and we are to “do right and feed everyone.”

In reality, it seems the secretary’s actual goal is to make sure the department can’t achieve its mission by attacking its most important resource — its people.

First, there’s the hiring freeze. Every potential hire must be approved. Even for direct revenue-producing positions.

Those are the people who deliver service to our customers. Realizing that those people are USDA’s bread and butter, both financially and operationally, the department had a blanket hiring authority in place for those job series last year. That authority was just revoked so the secretary can clear each and every hire.

Imagine the pace of that.

Imagine the impact of that on the services USDA delivers to Americans.

This is taking place as normal attrition is compounded by growing retirement attrition. USDA’s frontline service delivery ranks are being depleted and may or may not be replenished.

And, if they are replenished, it will be on a case-by-case basis that is at a pace so glacial, we will be unable to meet customers’ needs or, for user-fee funded services, collect enough revenue to cover costs, as required by law.

Vacancies also are going unfilled behind the frontlines, effecting the ultimate “swamp dwellers” — career federal employees in the office who have devoted their careers to public service and USDA’s mission. These are the people who make the services USDA provides to America possible.

Waves of retirements, regular attrition, employees on the run and USDA cuts to key employee benefits are ruining the workforce. Vacancies sit open as they are not approved for rehires. Everyone should take a close look at what the secretary of Agriculture is doing — this is how you dismantle the government from the inside — you make it impossible for your workforce to get the job done despite their dedication and treat them and their work with utter disrespect.

Next, you go after their benefits. USDA just revised its telework policy. A truly personal and targeted effort to remove one of the highest ranking benefits that feds value and rely on to achieve a work-family balance (see the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey). And it’s a benefit accepted in the business world to increase productivity, improve morale, reduce turnover and save money.

USDA employees are now limited to teleworking one day per week and two per pay period and MUST be in their official office four days every week. So, if you work an alternate work schedule that gives you a four-day workweek during a pay period, you can’t telework that week.

The secretary says this change is a way to improve collaboration and communication inside USDA and with its customers. This is just moving the USDA workplace backwards to an era that didn’t allow for effective telework because there was no technology to support it. And really, it is another shot at making the workplace as hostile as possible to drive more feds from USDA and/or government employment. Hit ‘em where it hurts — attack their family life.

And here’s some performance management magic that’s taking place at USDA. All USDA employees are now to get a “fully successful” performance rating.

“U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees meeting the full performance of their position should receive ‘fully successful’ as a rating of record. ‘Superior’ and ‘outstanding’ ratings should be reserved for the rare instance when an employee has exceeded the expectations of a high performer. We want to emphasize the value of receiving a ‘fully successful’ rating at the end of the performance year. We assure you that a ‘fully successful’ rating is seen as a true success.”

Well, let me tell you, when you are looking for a new job elsewhere, your next potential employer won’t see it that way. Every USDA employee is now entering the job market at a disadvantage with the very difficult task of convincing a potential employer that “fully successful” really means you are a “true success.”

People are required for an organization to achieve its mission. USDA’s mission is fulfilled because of the work and dedication of its employees. It’s pretty clear that USDA’s leadership is undermining its own mission by attacking its own workforce.

The author is an employee at the Agriculture Department and requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

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