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politico – At USDA, 2 key agencies on difficult road to ‘build back better’

Employees and advocates say a central part of Biden’s farming program will be restoring the department as a whole to restore its focus on the environment, nutrition, food security and more. But doing that will require rebuilding a part of the federal bureaucracy that went through a comprehensive restructuring under Trump that could take years of effort.

The abrupt relocation in mid-2019 of the USDA’s Economic Research Department and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from DC to Kansas City resulted in the departure of a wave of service employees career, hundreds of economic and research positions left vacant and delays in dozens of essential research reports on topics such as conservation, nutrition support and agricultural economics.

“It’s hard to argue that this never happened,” said former USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber, now a senior researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “You uprooted everyone’s life, you made all these people resign – it’s a difficult situation.

Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to relocate the ERS and NIFA has been widely seen as part of a larger effort within the department to downgrade important research. Attempts by Democrats to stop the movement have failed on Capitol Hill, and the relocation will likely be a lasting part of Perdue’s legacy at the USDA.

The difficult act of turning the tide

Biden and his candidate for secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, appear to have few options to quickly undo the significant damage to agency workforce, morale and productivity.

The dismissal of hundreds of employees in Washington – many of whom are new hires brought in to work in the Kansas City office – would be another upheaval for USDA employees who still feel exhausted from the high-profile battle over where they are required to do so. report to work.

To complicate matters further, the state governments of Missouri and Kansas have invested millions of dollars in economic incentives as part of a multi-state bidding process vying to host the researchers. And dozens of USDA employees who have left DC, along with a wave of new hires, have settled into their new lives in the Kansas City area.

“If ERS demanded that everyone at KC move to DC, that would be a disservice,” said a current ERS employee who granted anonymity to freely discuss attitudes among staff. “At the end of the day, a lot of people are happy in KC and don’t want to move. And if Covid has shown anything, it’s that we can collaborate successfully from a distance. “

The first order of the day

USDA employees and outside experts argue that at the very least, the department should quickly fill vacancies – wherever they see fit.

Since the announcement of the relocation plans, around two-thirds of the employees have left, many of whom were senior experts in their fields with decades of experience in the ministry.

On his first day on the job, Vilsack is expected to start reviewing and reconsidering the Kansas City move, and examining how that created a “demoralized workforce,” according to a memo to Biden’s transition from the “Climate 21 Project. And, USDA is to hire at least 400 more people at ERS and NIFA to restore staffing levels to what they were under the Obama administration, said the memo.

The note was written by a group of experts who analyzed how federal government programs should be used to fight climate change. Its authors include Robert Bonnie, the former Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment to former President Barack Obama who now leads the USDA Landing Team, which makes it likely that some of the recommendations will be implemented.

Experts also asked Vilsack and his associates to assess the extent to which production has been disrupted, in part by requesting a third-party review of projects that have been postponed or abandoned due to the move.

“The forced relocation to Kansas City has also meant dozens of reports and millions of research funds have been delayed or scuttled, delaying critical climate change and other research,” he said.

Researchers in the conservation and environment arm of ERS predict that the change in administration will result in an intensified workload and a high public profile, an ERS employee said.

“The feeling is that climate change is going to become a big problem,” the person said. “They’re going to be busy from day one.”

The Agriculture Department recruited new staff more efficiently than expected, but gaping holes in agency rosters still exist.

A current USDA spokesperson said the agencies have filled vacancies throughout the pandemic and “will continue at a robust recruiting pace into 2021.”

“Both ERS and NIFA have engaged with stakeholders near and far to ensure that a strong pool of talented individuals is aware of the career opportunities available at these agencies,” the spokesperson said.

The pandemic and remote working have shown that the location of the headquarters is not as vital as the staffing. So rather than overturning the decision altogether and bringing all workers back to Washington, USDA workers and their allies are asking the Biden administration to give agencies more flexibility to fill positions that are right for them. better and allow staff to continue working remotely when possible.

In a way, the economic downturn caused by the pandemic has made the hiring process easier. ERS in particular has benefited from the opportunity to recruit academics looking for work. And employees said the expansion of teleworking demonstrated to ministry officials that agencies can operate fairly easily with employees scattered across the country.

“In a very strange way, the pandemic has made it easier for us to accomplish our tasks because we don’t have to travel anywhere,” said Tom Bewick, Program Manager and Acting Vice President from the NIFA union who spent hours a day from his home in Maryland to DC

Grant money as key to Biden’s program

NIFA, for the most part, was able to continue to get grants to research universities, Bewick said. But staff shortages have made it difficult to monitor how that money is being spent, which is one of the agency’s main responsibilities.

The American Statistical Association and former ERS administrators Susan Offutt and Katherine Smith Evans have compiled a list of priorities to repair the agency.

The newspaper calls on the new Secretary of Agriculture to reaffirm the independence of the ERS, which the authors say was “eroded by inappropriate office intervention within the USDA” under the Trump administration.

The agency has occasionally clashed with department heads by publishing research detailing how farmers have been affected by trade wars and President Donald Trump’s tax policies, among other sensitive issues.

Along with the relocation, Perdue attempted to realign the ERS under the control of the Chief Economist, bringing it closer to the secretary’s office, but He then backed down amid the backlash against the proposal.

Even with the USDA hiring new staff faster than expected, the loss of senior researchers and geographic division continues to take its toll on the remaining ERS employees who have been forced to take over.

Perdue’s move, which was later described by former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney as an experiment to narrow the reach of the federal government, prompted ERS and NIFA employees to train unions for the first time with the aim of deriving certain benefits from the ministry, such as covering moving costs.

“Most of us are still struggling,” said Laura Dodson, an economist at the agency and acting vice president of the ERS employees union. “New staff cannot replace all the tasks and responsibilities of old staff. Many of us are overworked and overworked and unable to train new staff due to heavy workloads. “

Dodson said it made sense to have a field office in Kansas City and give employees more options to work remotely – but the agency should be centered squarely in the Beltway, where staff can easily collaborate with other research agencies and share their work with policy makers.

“The only way forward that I can see is for us to recruit former staff in the district,” said Dodson.

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