After high staff attrition, USDA seeks to rebuild with ‘robust’ hiring

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack hopes to combat low morale with “robust” recruitment at relocated research facilities.

More than two years after the Department of Agriculture relocated two major research facilities to Kansas City, Missouri, upending much of the workforce, staffing levels are getting closer to normal.

After the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) faced high staff attrition after relocating, the offices have hired a combined total of about 450 new employees.

With 450 new hires following relocation, ERS and NIFA have reached a combined total of 650 workers, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on May 10.

“We have a goal of about 750 people between the ERS facility and the NIFA mission area. The hiring has been, I think, robust,” Vilsack said.

But the Government Accountability Office said the agency could have avoided some staff attrition if they had included loss of employees as a potential factor of relocating in the first place.

Along with the costs of attrition, several other key considerations were missing from USDA’s method to narrow down and select a final relocation site, GAO said in an April 21 report. In particular, USDA also omitted factors like disruptions to activities.

USDA deviated from its own evidence-based process and ignored important findings of its own analysis to get to the answer it wanted, Susan Offutt, a former ERS administrator and former GAO chief economist, said in an interview with Federal News Network.

“Instead of following their own roadmap for doing that analysis, they pulled punches. They took out certain cities, particularly in the D.C. area, that for whatever reason, didn’t suit their preferences even though they might have met the criteria that they had announced,” Offutt said.

USDA’s omissions may contribute to an unreliable estimate of how much money the agency actually saved by relocating, GAO Managing Director Lawrance Evans, the report’s author, told Federal News Network.

“Think about losses in human capital,” Evans said. “The institutional knowledge you lose when new employees replace experienced employees. The hiring and training costs of new employees. Reduced productivity because of the loss of experienced employees.”

The relocation compounds an already difficult hiring process for the facilities.

“Recruitment is a hard job to begin with, but it’s even more difficult if you’re not in a location that meets the expectations of the people you’re interviewing,” Kitty Smith Evans, former ERS administrator and current government relations director for the American Economic Association, told Federal News Network.

With many new employees, Smith Evans said operations can become chaotic.

“There’s no institutional memory. There’s no ability to call on past experience with the agency or with USDA,” she said.

Making transparent agency decisions

USDA pointed to three main goals for the relocation: improving staff recruitment and retention, moving resources closer to stakeholders and consumers and reducing costs for taxpayers.

But Evans, the report’s author, said the agency heavily focused on one priority — reducing costs — over the other two. That limited balance in decision-making, Evans said. For example, USDA eliminated areas with higher costs of living if the locations didn’t have the space to co-locate the facilities.

USDA started with a list of 139 locations, then whittled it down to about 26. The agency then reduced the list further using certain criteria, ending with four options and the ultimately deciding on Kansas City.

Since the USDA relocation, Office of Management and Budget has released a framework aiming to help agencies more transparently make cost-analysis decisions.

The GAO report analyzed the effectiveness of USDA’s decision-making process using OMB’s guidance, which stems from the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. The act directs agencies to use good-quality evidence when making decisions, as well as collect and analyze evidence in a transparent manner involving stakeholders.

The end goal is “to maintain accountability and ensure that it is not tailored to generate specific findings,” the GAO report stated.

At the time that USDA made the relocation decision, the agency was not required to comply with OMB’s guidance, since it was published after the relocation decision.

GAO said it acknowledges USDA was not required to comply with OMB’s guidance at the time, but said the framework was still a relevant post-decision analysis.

“We expect evidence-based decision-making and agencies using the highest quality evidence available that incorporates stakeholder involvement,” Evans said.

Current USDA leadership took issue with GAO’s use of the framework.

“The GAO report reflects at best an inapplicable frame of analysis or at worst the ex post facto application of OMB guidance on the act as a kind of ‘test case,’ guidance that GAO notes could address the weaknesses it finds in the USDA relocation decision in future such decisions,” USDA wrote in a March 18 letter to Evans after receiving the preliminary report.

But Offutt, a former ERS administrator, called USDA’s response “disappointing and misleading.” She said USDA should have welcomed GAO’s report as a guide to ensuring better outcomes from future decision-making on the relocation of federal agencies.

“The fundamental point that GAO is making is that you need to do a rigorous analysis. It has to be based in evidence,” Offutt said.

Despite the report’s assertions, GAO did not make any recommendations to USDA in part because the agency had already completed relocation when the report came out.

Evans said there are still takeaways from the report for both USDA and other federal agencies. Agencies should use cost-benefit analyses as a framework to understand impacts, expected costs and benefits and unintended consequences when making policy decisions.

“You should be communicating sources of uncertainty. You should think about not only the expected outcomes, but the best and worst case scenarios. Cost-benefit analysis is a framework that is meant to drive rigorous analysis and produce high-quality evidence. That will improve decision-making across government,” he said.

The future of ERS and NIFA staffing

Even as ERS and NIFA continue to rebuild their workforce, a USDA spokesperson told Federal News Network that federal hiring and retention is always an ongoing process.

“Since 2021, USDA has maximized flexibilities to enable us to search for top talent wherever it exists, and both ERS and NIFA have leveraged this flexibility to yield impressive results,” the spokesperson wrote.

To support hiring goals, USDA’s fiscal 2023 budget request proposes more investments in the agency’s research facilities, aiming to rebuild capacity and credibility in those areas following staffing losses.

“In 2021, the research, education and economics mission area was successful in hiring above their 2020 staffing levels, but they are still significantly understaffed to address the current and emerging challenges,” Vilsack wrote in his testimony for the May 10 hearing.

Morale is low at ERS and NIFA, but hiring more people will help to lessen that issue, Vilsack said at the hearing.

Looking at direct employee feedback, USDA scores about average for questions related to morale. For example, in the 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, 71.3% of USDA employees agreed that their work gives them a sense of personal accomplishment, compared with a governmentwide average of 71.1%.

The third round of federal pulse surveys show similarly average responses. For USDA, 45.6% of employees reported that they feel exhausted in the morning at the thought of another workday.

In line with hiring goals, increasing resources for human resource management was a key piece of Vilsack’s testimony ­— he said it’s critical to mission achievement for USDA.

“You might expect an agency of the size and scale of USDA to have a robust training division – a team focused on workplace wellness, employee engagement and recruiting the next generation of USDA staff and 10 leaders in rural America. But you’d be wrong,” Vilsack wrote.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories

    (Getty Images/iStockphoto/AmmentorpDK)federal telework

    USDA joins SSA in telling employees about reentry plans

    Read more
    Federal News Radio pinwheel icon

    After the relocation gutted their workforces, USDA research agencies struggle to rebuild

    Read more

    Results out for third round of pulse surveys, what should agencies do with the data?

    Read more