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Here’s How a USDA Science Agency’s Relocation Will Reduce Its Productivity

Most Economic Research Service mandatory reports will go out on time, albeit with less information, but other reports will be delayed or discontinued, internal memo says.

The Agriculture Department said Friday that all of the Economic Research Service’s legally required reports will continue to be published on time after the office is moved to Kansas City this weekend, although an internal memo suggests other reports are likely to be delayed or discontinued altogether.

The planned relocation of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture will be partially implemented by Monday, when most workers who accepted relocation orders are expected to report to temporary office space at the Beacon Center in Kansas City.

ERS is delaying the relocation of some employees who elected to move—and the removal of some who declined—as well as hiring retired former workers to maintain continuity of service since more than half of employees chose to leave the agency.

As a result, congressionally mandated reports and commodity and trade outlook reports all will go out on schedule. But according to an internal memo obtained by Government Executive, many of those reports could be abridged if the agency cannot staff up and get its technology infrastructure up to speed in time.

“Most outlook reports will be shortened if key staff depart before new hires are trained and if secure IT connections preclude remote participation in [World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates] and other interagency meetings,” the document states. “For example, they will have fewer or no ‘special articles,’ limited data visualizations, no tables in some PDF reports when they are also available as Excel files.”

According to the document, monthly season-average commodity price forecasts—reports used by USDA’s Risk Management Agency and World Agricultural Outlook Board—could see delays as early as October, depending on which staffers leave the agency, and the Monthly Food Price Outlook is expected to be delayed in October, November and December.

In a statement, an Agriculture Department spokesperson said all mandatory reports are on track for publication, although the official did not address the potential for delays.

“ERS has taken important action to ensure mission continuity and delivery of mission critical work throughout the transition, and as a result, the agency is on track to complete its mandated and calendared projects,” the spokesperson said.

John Newton, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said that while his organization relies heavily on ERS data, in addition to reports from other USDA agencies, it’s too early to say how the relocation could impact his work.

“We depend on a lot of data from USDA, and we lean heavily on data from [the National Agricultural Statistics Service], the Foreign Agriculture Service and ERS to inform our policy development process,” Newton said. “We look forward to ERS quickly filling those positions with high quality economists so that work can continue.”

Outside of those mandatory publications, planned reports across “all divisions” could see delays of some kind, and others could be cancelled altogether, the memo stated.

“All divisions anticipate delays in the production and release of ERS reports,” the memo said. “The divisions will work with PSB on prioritization of reports given limited editorial staff.”

According to the memo, 17 reports from the Food Economics Division could see delays. The Market and Trade Economics Division, which publishes a variety of research reports, could see “significant delays,” particularly in cases where a report has not yet begun the peer review process. The memo highlights 12 reports at risk of delay there. Another nine reports were specifically cited as potentially delayed from the Resource and Rural Economics Division.

In addition, a number of so-called “non-calendar” products—data caches that are updated on a semiregular basis—will see updates delayed or discontinued entirely. Included in this list is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Policy Database, the Food Environment Atlas and the 2020 ERS Cost of Foodborne Illness Data Product. And county-level data on oil and gas production and employment in “creative classes” will be “discontinued,” the memo said.

The memo also suggests officials still have work to do in communicating the many projected delays to people who rely on ERS reports.

“Note: Next steps will include developing consistent external messaging for delayed and/or discontinued products,” the document concludes.