Agency function is tied to how people feel about their job — that's bad news for USDA research

Agency function is tied to how people feel about their job — that's bad news for USDA research
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Should anyone care how career civil servants view the attractiveness of their workplace? The answer is yes, Congress and taxpayers should. The results of the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings arrived just before Christmas, and they don’t look good for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that was before the shutdown began.

USDA’s overall ranking among large agencies fell to second-to-last, one of the largest declines of any cabinet agency. The slide is naturally attributable to decreases in rankings across the constituent parts of USDA. In particular, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture had among the worst outcomes. USDA, of course, plans to relocate these agencies outside the Washington, D.C. metro area, and, in the case of ERS, to move it into the Office of the Secretary.

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Congress should intervene to address these steep declines and to block the USDA ERS and NIFA moves. Dissatisfied employees do not serve anybody’s best interests and the uprooting of ERS and NIFA will set back the work of these agencies by years and make it harder for them to do their work.

Blocking the ERS and NIFA moves will help to stop the plunge in employee satisfaction at the two agencies but to restore them to their previous positive rating, USDA will also need to show full respect and support for the two agencies that so fundamentally inform national policy in the food, agricultural and rural economies and drive food and agriculture research.

According to the “Best Places” sponsor, the Partnership for Public Service, the rankings measure “employee engagement,” a composite of responses to survey questions about employees’ recommending an agency as a good place to work and satisfaction with their jobs and with the organization in which they work. Jeff Neal, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, has explained that engagement matters not just to how people feel about their employment, but to how well their agencies function. Low engagement can affect recruitment and retention, productivity, and innovation in how work gets done. 

Does the USDA have ERS’s and NIFA’s best interests in mind as they claim? Consider that the plans were announced without an under secretary for its research arm and without consultation of leadership of the two agencies or consultation with the agricultural research community. Consider that the president’s 2019 budget proposed cutting the ERS budget in half and that, when Congress instead fully funded the agency, USDA Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueSenate buzz grows for Abrams after speech electrifies Dems Energy Secretary Rick Perry is designated survivor for 2019 State of the Union Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union MORE announced ERS would be moved away from the nation’s capital and realigned within the Department under a political office, that of the secretary. 

It would appear the department, not able to accomplish its aims via congressional action, has decided to address its goal by other means: reducing the size of the agency by shedding staff who would not agree to move and using research funds to prepare a completely new facility.  

Consider that Perdue eliminated the post of under secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development, a position that serves improve the economy and quality of life in rural America, which is also a focus of ERS reports. Consider that the first nominee to serve as USDA chief scientist to oversee ERS, NIFA, and their two sister agencies was not a scientist and lacked research administration experience. Now, the Senate has returned the nomination for the REE under secretary to the White House, perhaps an indication of concern over the Perdue’s plans.

USDA says that declines in ranking are due to the inevitable angst associated with changes put forward by a new administration. This is not likely the case. ERS has been around in some organizational form for almost 100 years. It is used to changes in priorities, organization, and operations. What it is not accustomed to is an assault on its primary mission, which Neal identifies as a key source of conflict.  

USDA acknowledged there would be some setbacks to each agency during the transition but that both agencies would eventually be stronger and more vibrant once established in their new location. However, given USDA’s low regard for these two agencies, their unknown agenda for the USDA research arm, and their ill-conceived plans for the agencies, their optimism is not shared by those of us who have served proudly and with satisfaction in the USDA research arm as leaders and researchers.

Until the newest ratings, ERS had ranked in the top quartile of the Best Places to Work in the federal government and as the top USDA agency. Besides the effective management and broad support it had enjoyed by Congress and the department, I attribute the high ranking to the meaningful and impactful work ERS employees carry out. Their reports, on topics ranging from trade to food security to rural economy, are widely used by policymakers, industry, journalists and rural advocates. The plunge in these rankings sends a strong, troubling message.

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It is not just civil servants who should be alarmed at USDA’s plans for ERS, but Congress, taxpayers generally and those who are engaged in national farm, food, natural resource and rural development policy. Reducing the capacity of ERS and orienting it to support policy advocacy diminishes the foundation for transparent, accessible, evidence-based policy design and evaluation. The farm bill that will soon become law directs USDA to spend some $850 billion over the next eight years. Keeping ERS fully funded — and fully functional — is the very least necessary to understand the impact and effectiveness of the panoply of programs that touch more than 40 million Americans.

Susan Offutt was administrator of the Economic Research Service under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.