The botched plan to 'fix' USDA’s research arm

The federal government is struggling to fill critical positions. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced earlier this fall new hiring authorities and pay systems for positions where they “have identified severe shortages of candidates and/or critical hiring needs.” Economists are at the top of the OPM list with statisticians close behind. Economists were also selected for the first alternative pay system to be developed because the occupation is a government-wide, “high-risk, mission-critical” occupation for which “work has been underway for several years to identify and implement strategies to improve recruitment, retention and development.”

The USDA says it is also aware of the challenge of recruiting economists and statisticians. Their solution, however, is to move its Economic Research Service — one of 13 primary federal statistical agencies — to Fargo, Wichita, or another location where economists and statisticians will earn less but live better because of lower costs of living. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Recruitment challenges were one of four reasons the USDA cited when it announced plans to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The other reasons — to be closer to their stakeholders, address attrition challenges and lower costs — didn’t make much more sense than the recruitment one, as the American Statistical Association demonstrated.

Further and more importantly, the move will likely make recruitment more difficult and undermine the quality, relevance, and timeliness of the agency’s work to inform evidence-based policymaking across our $1 trillion food, agriculture and rural economies. Congressional appropriators should stop the non-sensical and counterproductive move when they finalize the fiscal 2019 spending bills.

As OPM’s new guidance acknowledges, economists and statisticians are an in-demand occupation vital to work across the federal government. Nevertheless, as the No. 3 ranked agricultural economics research institution in the world, the Economic Research Service has been able to recruit top candidates to help perform its meaningful, impactful work.

Recruitment is also helped by its location in Washington, D.C. — where the other three agricultural economics research institution ranking in the top 4 in the world are located and where spouses are more likely to find well-paying and satisfying jobs.

USDA’s claim that attrition rates help justify their upheaval of the USDA research arm is also mystifying and underscores the lack of justification for such a major restructuring. USDA initially claimed the Economic Research Service had an annual attrition rate 4.5 percentage points higher than USDA as a whole. They didn’t mention they were including summer interns, who have a 100 percent attrition rate.

When looking at only at permanent employees, USDA acknowledged to Congress it was only 1 percentage point higher for the Economic Research Service. Such a small difference — amounting to an extra three people leaving the agency annually — does not justify relocating the agency outside of D.C.

Further, USDA should consider the attrition is due in part to top employees being recruited to other parts of the USDA. 

If USDA wants to worry about attrition, they should be much more concerned about the brain drain that will result from moving the agency outside of D.C. We know from experience that even an inside-the-beltway move increases attrition. Most concerning, those least likely to make a long-distance move are the more senior and therefore experienced employees — who don’t want to uproot their families and lives — and the top talent —who can more easily find other jobs in Washington. The relocation attrition will surely set back ERS’s rise to its top ranking by years.

Finally, USDA’s suggestion that moving the agency away from D.C. misses the point that many of the Economic Research Service’s primary stakeholders are other USDA agencies, Congress, and other Washington-based entities.

USDA’s decision not to engage OPM or the Economic Research Service leadership isn’t the only instance of the department skirting good-government practice. After Congressional appropriators rejected USDA’s February proposal to gut the Economic Research Service budget by 50 percent and absorb it into another agency, USDA waited until Congress’s August recess to announce the newest plans and is now moving as quickly as possible. More broadly, why wasn’t USDA’s proposal included in the comprehensive White House plan for government reorganization announced in June? Developed during a year-long process overseen by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), it includes a proposal to move the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the Department of Labor to the Department of Commerce. The federal statistical community is receptive to the proposal in part because of its multi-year timeline and request for input from Congress and the public.

ADVERTISEMENT

USDA also seems to skirt OMB guidance that “federal statistical agencies and recognized statistical units must function in an environment that is clearly separate and autonomous from the other administrative, regulatory, law enforcement, or policy-making activities within their respective departments” by realigning the Economic Research Service from the USDA’s research arm to the Office of the Chief Economist in the secretary’s office. Because a role the chief economist’s office is to support the secretary’s policies, the realignment jeopardizes the agency’s independent and policy-neutral reputation

Congress should exercise its oversight responsibilities and stop USDA’s plans. They should at least slow down the process, require a cost-benefit analysis so that we all understand better the rationale for and the ramifications of the move, and give the new OPM policies a chance to easy any recruitment challenges. Good government requires nothing less.

Steve Pierson is director of science policy for the American Statistical Association. Follow him on Twitter at @asa_scipol.