Those Agriculture Department agency relocations continue to throw off lessons learned

When the Trump administration moved two small agencies of the Agriculture Department to Kansas City, Missouri, it lit a storm of opposition. The agencies have m...

When the Trump administration moved two small agencies of the Agriculture Department to Kansas City, Missouri, it lit a storm of opposition. The agencies have more or less settled down, but the move remains an object of study. Now the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has laid out what it calls leading practices for re-locations. To get the details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Steve Morris, GAO’s Director of Natural Resources and Environment.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin And you issued a report just kind of reiterating aimed at Agriculture Department on what the leading, if not, best practices are for relocations. But this could have been aimed really across the government, I would say.

Steve Morris Yeah. I mean, any time that the agency is in the process of relocation, that would be a subject, potentially a subject of our review, Tom, you’re right. But in this case, we did look at specifically,  USDA in their relocation of a couple of the research agencies, namely [Economic Research Service (ERS)] and [National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)].

Tom Temin Right. And you said that they didn’t totally ignore what are good practices for relocation or reorganizing agencies, but they didn’t follow all of the best practices or all of the leading practices. What are a couple of things, just to be positive, that they did right?

Steve Morris So Tom, let me give you a little bit of context, in terms of what we looked at, I think it’s going to kind of frame the issue here. We were asked to take a look at USDA relocation of ERS and NIFA, two of their research agencies. And one of the key points we found is that, there was a pretty significant impact in terms of its people and its productivity. So following the 2019 relocation, you mentioned that the agencies were fairly small, and they were they had about 300 people each, but about a year and a half they ended up losing about half of their staff. Coinciding with the loss of staff, ERS’ productivity really declined, they produced a lot fewer reports. NIFA was also impacted, they took a lot longer to process the grants that they’re responsible for. So significant impacts, in terms of people and products.

Steve Morris The good news is by the end of 2021, the agencies had rebounded, both in terms of staff numbers and also in terms of productivity. So they were pretty much about where they were before the relocation. A couple of significant changes, though, worth mentioning, the composition of their staff changed dramatically. So prior to the relocation, where you had the majority of staff in both agencies with more than two years experience, for example, a couple of years after the relocation, that pretty much switched. So in NIFA’s case, you had maybe about a quarter of the folks with two years of more experience, and ERS maybe about a third of their staff. So there was a very significant change, in terms of the experience level of folks working at those agencies. Similarly, we saw a pretty drastic change in terms of the the ethnic composition of the staff. Just to give you an example, Tom, so in terms of African-American staff at NIFA, prior to the relocation, almost half of their staff were African-American. When we looked at it a couple of years later, that percentage was less than 20%. And it was fairly similar at that year as well. So pretty dramatic changes in terms of the experience level of staff and also the composition of their staff, in terms of ethnicity. Coupled with the change in experience, you would probably expect to see this, but the percentage of folks working at both agencies who are aged 40 or over also declined. So you had a much younger staff at both agencies as well. So that was something we wanted definitely to highlight, the impact on people and products. And that kind of leads us to that next issue you brought up about leading practices.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Steve Morris, director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office. So a couple of factors they didn’t really, maybe count on or some effects that they didn’t anticipate, which gets to the practices that they should have followed. Tell us more about those.

Steve Morris Yeah, absolutely. We assessed the agencies actions against what we consider leading practices any time a department goes through any sort of reform, things that they need to consider and also practices they needed to consider from a human capital perspective. What if there’s changes in composition, for example, how do you deal with that? So we took a look at the agency’s actions and compare that to some of those leading practices. And in some cases, to USDA’s credit, they did follow those actions. For example, the department did have and develop certain goals for the move. One of the key ones was to recruit and retain highly qualified folks, for example. So that’s something that was stated. Part of the problem is that they didn’t really have performance measures to kind of gauge their progress. So did they actually follow through on some of the goals they had initially?

Steve Morris One of the things we pointed out, that we thought was very significant, is that any time you do these sorts of reorganizations, you want to get people to buy in, the folks who are going to be most affected. In this case, it would be the staff working for the agencies, and USDA kind of dropped the ball on that, in terms of getting their input and buying for the move, which kind of hampered their efforts moving forward. One thing we pointed out is, if they would have query their staff, they probably would’ve had a better sense of how many folks were actually going to make the move or not, and that would have informed the decisions as to some of the future actions that we’re going to take. So just an example of some of the things that USDA missed and things that we think they should do better in the future.

Tom Temin Yeah, you don’t want to take your people kicking and screaming with their heels dug in. Even though you may have that legal authority, it’s still not a good practice, because you’re not going to get the hearts. Only the bodies will go, but the hearts and minds may not be there.

Steve Morris Exactly, Tom.

Tom Temin And on the issue of racial diversity of the workforce, that’s a tough one, because you have to rehire, as you say, a lot of people left and they had to replace almost half their people, in both cases. And you don’t have quotas in the federal government, but yet you also want diversity. And how can agencies best approach that question?

Steve Morris Well, that’s it’s a great question, Tom. And I think part of it is just kind of assessing where you are. The makeup of the staff for both agencies was very diverse before the relocation, and that’s something that should have been considered moving forward, in terms of hiring practices, etc. And it goes back to that first issue about just having a better understanding of what your people are planning to do, in terms of a move that could have helped inform some of those plans moving forward in terms of who, what, where in the hire. So that becomes an issue and something that the agencies really did not focus on. In one of the key practices, we cite as having, diversity sort of management plan. Kind of thinking through these issues, and both agencies in this case didn’t have that. So that creates challenges for them moving forward. And again, from our perspective, implementing some of those practices is going to help them with some of the ongoing challenges, and also maybe can help them in the future if there is an additional relocation of agencies.

Tom Temin And your recommendations, there’s about eight of them. A long list went to a different administration than the one that had initiated this change. Yet, they’re still all open. And the Biden administration has stated its commitment to empowering the federal workforce. So briefly, just give us the tone of the recommendations and what you expect from agriculture now that they have them.

Steve Morris Yeah, absolutely, Tom. Well, as you mentioned, we did make eight recommendations, and these kind of follow what I was mentioning about leading practices for reform and human capital management. The good news here is that USDA agreed with the recommendations. So that’s great, we had buy in from the agency. They also noted their commitment to address these recommendations in the future. So, we’ll see how it goes. Again, we just issued this report a few months back and USDA is on board. So, we’ll keep checking to see how the agency is doing in terms of implementation.


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