Skeptics question whether relocations are an attempt to undermine science.
The Agriculture Department has announced it will relocate two major components outside of the Washington, D.C., area, and bring one—the Economic Research Service—directly under the purview of Secretary Sonny Perdue’s office.
The changes will affect most of the 700 employees at the research service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. USDA vowed not to involuntarily separate any employee, though most of them will have to relocate to a yet-to-be-determined area. The department will provide relocation assistance and the same base pay to affected workers, though employees could receive a pay cut if the new locality rate is lower than what they currently receive.
Employees who choose not to relocate may receive some financial assistance: USDA is requesting authority from the Office of Personnel Management to offer early retirement or buyouts to those opting not to take a job in the new location.
The department is looking to make the shift relatively quickly, saying it will complete the moves by the end of 2019. It has already issued a "sources sought" solicitation, seeking outside consultants to help select sites. The appropriate vendor will have experience in choosing new locations and transferring “corporate operations to new sites,” the department said. It requested information on the expected timeline for such a relocation, vendors’ prior experiences with similar moves and the typical costs for the consulting services.
USDA cited recent “significant turnover” at the components as necessitating the relocations, as new recruits often come from land-grant universities.
“It has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington, D.C., area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes,” the department said in a statement.
It added that most of USDA's stakeholders live and work far from the nation’s capital, and the moves would enable employees to work closer to those the department serves. USDA also said the moves would save money, trimming spending on rent, employee compensation and recruiting efforts.
“In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers of the United States,” Perdue said. “In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services.”
He added the moves were in no way a negative reflection on the components’ workforces.
“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,’ ” the secretary said.
Questioning the Move
In addition to relocating, the Economic Research Service will move to the Office of the Chief Economist within the secretary’s office. The two separated in 1994 as part of USDA reorganization. The research service engages in more general analysis of trends and emerging issues, while the Office of the Chief Economist directly reports to the secretary to investigate the economic impacts of the department’s policies and programs.
The transition has raised eyebrows in the agriculture and statistics communities, with some experts questioning the Trump administration’s motives. The White House proposed slashing the Economic Research Service budget nearly in half in the president's fiscal 2019 budget. It proposed cutting the National Institute of Food and Agriculture budget a comparatively modest 8 percent.
Forcing employees to choose to relocate or take a buyout could potentially shrink the agencies, and the ERS-OCE merger could also politicize a nonpartisan, statistical enterprise, some fear.
Ricardo Salvador, the director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said ERS should not be brought under a political umbrella. The 1994 reorganization, he said, was designed specifically to use the USDA’s chief scientist as a “firewall” against political influence. Employees whose research demonstrates an argument an administration had been putting forward was incorrect, he explained, would be making a “bad career move” to show their findings to a political boss. He noted that political influence over ERS’ predecessor is what led Congress to create the separate agency in 1961.
Outside groups working on agriculture issues have come to rely on ERS employees as a “set of independent, objective analysts,” Salvador said. That status could be jeopardized under the new arrangement.
Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents workers in other parts of USDA, called the moved “suspicious.”
“Typically, when a research or scientific function is separated it’s so they can have autonomy in the research that they’re doing,” Lenkart said. USDA is “taking two scientific functions and moving them closer to a political function.” He added the changes amounted to a one-two punch, as moving the economists out of Washington would give them “less visibility.”
Joseph Glauber, however, who served as USDA’s chief economist from 2007 through 2014, said there is merit to bringing the Economic Research Service within the OCE purview.
“It is really important to maintain that independence,” he said, but, “I don’t think the independence is compromised by reporting to a chief economist.” He explained that any secretary he worked with would confirm his office, led by a career employee, provided “objective analysis” and the shift would make ERS employees more responsive to “day-to-day issues.” He cited examples of instances when he presented research to the secretary and the secretary confirmed the accuracy of the data but said he had other factors to consider. Glauber found that process to be executed exactly as it should be executed.
What did not hold up, he said, was the decision to move the department outside of Washington. He agreed the relocation could help long-term recruiting, but argued that it would first raise significant, immediate problems.
“My fear is it will just result in a big loss of personnel,” Glauber said. He added if he were still at USDA, he would “want my economists close by.” ERS employees would miss out on key meetings, he said, and it “just doesn’t make a lot of sense” for future chief economists to have to travel hundreds of miles to visit their new employees.
Salvador agreed, saying USDA was “disincentivizing employees from remaining in ERS.” Coming to Washington is a point of attraction for agriculture scientists and economists, he said, as it enables them access to decision makers. Other USDA offices, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Marketing Service, have legitimate reasons to be spread across the country in more rural areas. Economists, statisticians and NIFA employees deciding grant awards benefit from not maintaining “cozy relationship” with department stakeholders, Salvador said.
The announcement marked the second USDA reorganization in the Trump administration. Last year, Perdue announced he was creating a new undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs and another to focus on farm production and conservation. That shake-up also involved concentrating the secretary’s power, as it eliminated the department's rural development agencies’ undersecretary and moved those agencies into Perdue’s office.