USDA restructures management offices

In a reorganization that will affect 2,800 employees, the Agriculture Department has streamlined its management structure, consolidating operations such as procurement, information technology, human resources and finance under a single umbrella organization.

Earlier this month USDA stood up a Departmental Management office to replace its Departmental Administration organization. No employees will lose their jobs as a result of the changes, but some could be offered incentives to retire early.

"Over the years, there have been many changes in Departmental Administration creating duplication of functions, fragmentation and organizational layering," wrote Alma C. Hobbs, USDA's deputy assistant secretary for administration, in an Oct. 1 letter. "This has created inefficiencies and reduced the effectiveness of the administrative programs. We have an opportunity now to realign these programs, strengthen integration of activities and create an organization that will increase our capacity for accomplishing mission-critical work."

Under the new structure, the offices of the assistant secretary for administration, assistant secretary for civil rights, chief information officer, chief financial officer, human resources management, small and disadvantaged business utilization, procurement and property management, advocacy and outreach, homeland security and emergency coordination, operations, correspondence management, and management services will fall under the Departmental Management organization, which will be headed by Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed.

The Office of the Judicial Officer and the Office of Administrative Law Judges will continue to function as independent units under the administrative supervision of Reed's office, agency officials said.

"If you look at the financial management and IT and procurement functions, they need to work together and coordinate to be effective," Reed said in an interview with Government Executive on Wednesday. "You can't have good, sound fiscal and IT policy without good procurement policy. They need to be coordinated and that's what we are doing here."

The restructuring also will allow the department to better organize or streamline the administrative support staff from many of the affected offices, officials said.

In a June 18 letter to staffers announcing the changes, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said the reorganization will not result in any layoffs or affect staffers' pay grades or commute.

"During the past several years, USDA has seen a flat budget while its provision of services has continued to grow," Vilsack said in the June letter. "This transformation is a tremendous opportunity for USDA to decrease redundancy, increase efficiency, improve employee morale and make better use of its resources."

While no USDA employees will be forced out, Hobbs wrote that the department is asking the Office of Personnel Management for authority to provide voluntary early retirements and voluntary separation incentive payments, "to present as many positive options as possible during this transformation." In total, the department estimates that it will trim 70 to 75 employees through a host of attrition techniques, although it does not have a specific goal for early retirements.

Some employees also could see their responsibilities altered, according to a department official who asked not to be named. Those changes, the source said, would be voluntary.

Only 45 of the 2,800 affected employees are represented by unions, and Hobbs said those groups were consulted throughout the process. Union representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the changes.

The restructuring, Reed said, generally has the support of the workforce. "The vast majority of employees feels that this was the right thing to do and that it was long overdue," he said.

In addition to creating the Departmental Management organization, USDA will streamline operations by combining the Office of Budget and Program Analysis and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer. A fact sheet on the changes said the new office will be a "one-stop shop for all matters related to budget estimates, legislative reports and regulations, financial reporting and auditing."

The Security Services and the Homeland Security offices also are being integrated under the new plan. The new Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Coordination will consolidate services related to governmentwide emergency policy and assessments, personnel and document security, physical security, emergency programs, continuity of operations and continuity of government, according to the fact sheet.

And, in a break from the favored government parlance, USDA's Office of Human Capital Management now will be known as the Office of Human Resource Management. Since passage of the 2002 Chief Human Capital Officers Act, human capital management has been the preferred term for workforce selection, development, training and management.

Reed said the change in terminology was deliberate and spurred by the workforce. "Most of the employees at USDA are offended by the term human capital," Reed said. "They see themselves as resources."

The reorganization also calls for USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Joe Leonard to report to Reed rather than to the department secretary. A spokeswoman for Vilsack on Monday said the office was included in the restructuring so that civil rights could be better integrated with other human resources and employment units under Reed's authority.

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