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

More than two years after the Department of Agriculture moved two major research facilities to Kansas City, Missouri, disrupting much of the workforce, staffing levels are approaching normal.

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

With 450 new hires following the relocation, ERS and NIFA reached a combined total…

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More than two years after the Department of Agriculture moved two major research facilities to Kansas City, Missouri, disrupting much of the workforce, staffing levels are approaching normal.

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

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

“We have a target of approximately 750 personnel between the ERS facility and the NIFA mission area. Hiring has been, I think, robust,” Vilsack said.

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

Besides attrition costs, several other key considerations were missing from the USDA’s method for refining and selecting a final relocation site, the GAO said in an April 21 report. In particular, the USDA also omitted factors such as business disruptions.

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

“Instead of following their own roadmap to do this analysis, they threw punches. They eliminated some cities, especially in the DC area, that for some reason didn’t fit their preferences, even though they might meet the criteria they advertised,” Offutt said.

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

“Think of the human capital losses,” Evans said. “The institutional knowledge that you lose when new employees replace experienced employees. Costs of hiring and training new employees. Reduced productivity due to loss of experienced employees.

The move compounds an already difficult hiring process for facilities.

“Recruiting is hard work at first, but it’s even harder if you’re not in a place that meets the expectations of the people you interview,” Kitty Smith Evans, former ERS administrator and current director of government relations for the American Economic Association, told Federal News Network.

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

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

Make transparent agency decisions

The USDA has outlined three main goals for relocation: improving staff recruitment and retention, bringing resources closer to stakeholders and consumers, and reducing costs to taxpayers.

But Evans, the report’s author, said the agency had focused heavily on one priority – cutting costs – rather than the other two. This limited balance in decision-making, Evans said. For example, the USDA eliminated areas with higher cost of living if locations did not have the space to co-locate facilities.

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

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

The GAO report analyzed the effectiveness of USDA decision-making using guidance from the OMB, which stems from the Foundations of Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018. The law directs agencies to use good quality evidence when making decisions, and to 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 results,” the GAO report says.

At the time the USDA made the relocation decision, the agency was not required to comply with the OMB guidelines, as they were issued after the relocation decision.

The GAO said it recognized the USDA was not required to comply with OMB guidelines at the time, but said the framework was still relevant post-decision analysis.

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

Current USDA management has challenged GAO’s use of the framework.

“The GAO report reflects at best an inapplicable analytical framework or at worst the ex post facto application of OMB guidelines on the act as a sort of ‘test case,’ guidelines which the GAO says could address weaknesses it finds in the USDA’s relocation decision in future such decisions,” the USDA wrote in a March 18 letter to Evans after receiving the preliminary report.

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

“The fundamental point that GAO makes is that you have to do a rigorous analysis. It has to be evidence-based,” Offutt said.

Despite the report’s claims, the GAO made no recommendations to the USDA, in part because the agency had already completed the relocation when the report came out.

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

“You should communicate the sources of uncertainty. You need to think not only about expected results, but also about best and worst case scenarios. Cost-benefit analysis is a framework that aims to conduct rigorous analysis and produce high-quality evidence. This will improve decision-making in government,” he said.

The Future of ERS and NIFA Staffing

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

“Since 2021, USDA has maximized flexibilities to allow us to source top talent wherever it exists, and ERS and NIFA have leveraged that flexibility to achieve impressive results,” the spokesperson wrote.

To support hiring goals, the USDA’s fiscal year 2023 budget request proposes more investment in the agency’s research facilities, aimed at rebuilding capacity and credibility in these areas following loss of personnel.

“In 2021, the Research, Education and Economics mission area managed to hire above its 2020 workforce, but is still significantly understaffed to meet current and emerging challenges,” Vilsack wrote in his testimony at the May 10 hearing.

Morale is low at ERS and NIFA, but hiring more people will help alleviate that problem, Vilsack told the hearing.

Looking at direct feedback from employees, the USDA scores about average on questions related to morale. For example, in the 2021 Federal Employee Views Survey, 71.3% of USDA employees agreed that their work gave them a sense of personal accomplishment, compared to a government average of 71.1. %.

The third round of federal flash surveys show similar average responses. For the USDA, 45.6% of employees reported feeling exhausted in the morning at the thought of another day at work.

Consistent with hiring goals, increasing resources for human resource management was a key part of Vilsack’s testimony — he said it was critical to achieving the USDA’s mission.

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


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