USDA secretary favors strong link between performance measures and goals

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes results-oriented management is central to running his department effectively -- and technology and federal employees are essential to that effort.

"Tying what we do to specific articulated results is a very important function of what the management side of this agency has to do," Vilsack said in a March 17 interview with Government Executive. "To do that not only requires a commitment by leadership to make that happen, the president has been very clear in his expectation in that respect."

The former Iowa governor, who became Agriculture secretary in January, said he wants to improve performance measures to achieve results the public expects, including a safer food safety system, more vibrant rural communities and jobs, and greater opportunities for farmers and ranchers to prosper.

Vilsack also said that he and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., both understand that achieving good performance at USDA requires modern technology. "It is frustrating to farmers and ranchers who want to be able to access information that we are still in a more paper orientation than a technology orientation. It is also frustrating that it seems to people it takes forever to implement the farm bill and the recovery and investment act, because we have to rewrite old, old software so that it is available to calculate the new programs."

The third component of managing USDA well, Vilsack said, is to recognize that the department's workforce is aging and that many employees will retire during the next few years. Vilsack pointed out that 54 percent of USDA's workforce is older than 45, compared with 41 percent of workers in the general population who are over 45.

"We have to look forward and say to ourselves, 'What does this mean?'" he said. "What do we have to do in terms of institutional knowledge? What does that mean for USDA?"

Peterson noted in a recent interview that Vilsack took a great interest in management when he was Iowa governor and eliminated several agencies during his tenure. Peterson, who believes that management at USDA has been deficient for years, would like to look into reorganizing the department. The last restructuring at USDA occurred in 1994 during the Clinton administration.

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