Agriculture Department headquarters in Washington.

Agriculture Department headquarters in Washington. Joe Ravi/

USDA Continues Its Descent in Engagement Ratings

The Agriculture Department retained its position as second to worst large agency in the Partnership for Public Service’s annual rankings of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.

The Agriculture Department continued its tumble toward the bottom of independent rankings of employee engagement at federal agencies in 2019, for the second year in a row outperforming only the Homeland Security Department among large agencies.

The Partnership for Public Service on Tuesday released its annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, and found that, for the first time in five years, employee engagement across the government fell.

The Partnership bases its rankings on an average of three questions from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey: “I recommend my organization as a good place to work;” “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job;” and “Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your organization.”

Although the Agriculture Department steadily increased its score in the Partnership’s rankings from 2014 until 2017, eventually reaching as high as 65.9 points out of 100, it has been in free fall for the last two years. Last year, the department’s score fell to 59.0, on the heels of Secretary Sonny Perdue’s controversial decision to cut telework for all Agriculture employees from four days a week to one.

In this year’s rankings, the department fell to its lowest point since 2013, scoring 56.5 out of 100. While a few agency subcomponents saw modest gains in their individual scores—the Risk Management Agency improved by 3.8 points, the National Agricultural Statistics Service gained 2.7 points and departmental management improved by 2.9 points—most declined.

Most subcomponents saw single-digit declines, like the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which fell 8.1 points; Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, which dropped 5.1 points; and the Office of General Counsel, which declined 4.6 points; however, three components within the department fell off an engagement cliff:

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights saw engagement fall 15.9 points, from 41.8 last year to 25.9. But that decline pales in comparison to the two agencies that recently relocated, at least partially, to Kansas City.

The Economic Research Service saw a 30.1-point drop in its engagement score, from 66.6 in 2018 to 36.5, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s engagement score fell 24.2 points from 41.8 last year to 25.9. Among all 420 agency subcomponents in the Partnership’s rankings, ERS ranked 415th, and NIFA was 419th.

Warning signs about morale were apparent as early as February. In the wake of the announcement that the department would move the two agencies from Washington to Kansas City, the workforces of both agencies voted to unionize. And in June, the vast majority of employees declined their relocation orders.

The Agriculture Department did not respond to a request for comment, but in the past, officials have said they are pursuing a robust hiring process to replace departing employees with economists in the Kansas City area.

To cope with the mass exodus of employees, the department in September began rehiring retirees on a part-time basis, and allowed those “reemployed annuitants” to telework. And just weeks before beginning to implement the relocation, officials offered to delay the firing date of workers who declined to move in order to ensure statutorily required reports were not delayed.

Despite those efforts, the department published an internal memo explaining that a number of reports would be delayed, and that some optional reports would be delayed indefinitely or canceled altogether.