Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has made a lot of statements in his first year of office saying he wants to make the USDA the most efficient and effective government agency. He’s often advocated the “common sense” approach to running government, which for many farmers is a breath of fresh air.
On Thursday he shook things up a bit when he proposed to move the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside of Washington, D.C.
The reasons USDA outlined in its release were fairly simple. First, it’s hard to attract and retain highly qualified staff – many of whom come from land-grant universities – to D.C. USDA cited the high employee turnover in these positions as well as the high cost of living and long commutes.
Another reason USDA proposed the change was to get researchers closer to many of its stakeholders. And lastly, was an anticipated “significant savings” on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets.
The President’s 2019 ERS budget request proposed to cut its permanent positions in half to an estimated 148 individuals. (It did call for a $10 million increase to support the slashing of employees by one-half.) Maybe the secretary views this attempt to relocate as a more logical way to save money, without sacrificing as many individuals.
As of September 30, 2017, there were 322 permanent full-time employees at ERS. In 2009, the ERS had about 430 staff members, a decrease from about 510 in 1998. NIFA has approximately 350 employees, according to a NIFA fact sheet.
The statement from USDA said, “No ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated. Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most. Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location. For those who are interested, USDA is seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for both Voluntary Early Retirement Authority and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments.”
The movement of the employees outside of Washington, D.C. is expected to be completed by the end of 2019. New locations have yet to be determined, and it is possible that ERS and NIFA may be co-located when their new homes are found, USDA said.
“None of this reflects on the jobs being done by our ERS or NIFA employees, and in fact, I frequently tell my Cabinet colleagues that USDA has the best workforce in the federal government,” Perdue said. “These changes are more steps down the path to better service to our customers, and will help us fulfill our informal motto to ‘Do right and feed everyone.’”
Perdue previously announced other significant changes at USDA. In May 2017, USDA created the first-ever Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs and reconstituted and renamed the new Farm Production and Conservation mission area, among other realignments. In addition, in September 2017, Perdue realigned a number of offices to improve customer service and maximize efficiency. Those actions involved innovation, consolidation, and the rearrangement of certain offices into more logical organizational reporting structures.