Fifteen months after Secretary Richard E. Lyng laid down the law on civil rights enforcement, some Department of Agriculture agencies continue to be plagued by turmoil over changes and resistance to the order.

Lyng said in a recent interview that results of the order were "hard to quantify," but he agreed with Deputy Secretary Peter C. Myers that it had got the attention of top USDA administrators.

"Some of our people probably have some biases, but they are more sexual than racial," Lyng said. "They hate the idea of having women at high levels in agriculture."

Myers, who was assigned to enforce Lyng's order, said that while "some agencies have made real changes, some others are not moving as fast . . . . Not that everything is perfect. It's still people dealing with people."

Myers said that he, Lyng and the department have felt "an upsurge" of civil rights complaints since

the order last year because "we've convinced them we're serious. Our managers are more aware of civil rights and equal opportunity requirements. We're trying, but a few people say we're pushing too hard."

In his order, stimulated by press reports and congressional investigations of civil rights problems in the department, Lyng warned that top officials would be held accountable for any discriminatory actions against the department's employes and its program participants.

Under Myers' direction, agencies have been required to develop specific plans for recruitment, training and promotion of minorities and women and each has been required to prevent discrimination in delivery of department services.

But Lyng's word apparently has not reached some agencies. A review team sent to Florida earlier this year to study compliance found that Lyng's 1986 policy order was not distributed in the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) until shortly before the team's arrival.

Despite Lyng's tough warning and vow of greater vigilance, the department's principal enforcement arm, the Office of Civil Rights, has been torn by wrangling between a new director and her staff and crippled by nearly 50 percent budget and personnel cuts since 1981. At one point last year, a review of agencies' performance in Arkansas was delayed for weeks because of a shortage of typists.

Turmoil in the civil rights office has been abetted by eight changes of the directorship since 1982, at least one proposed reorganization per year since then and frequent disagreements between staff members and directors chosen by John J. Franke Jr., the assistant secretary for administration.

"All of this has kept the staff demoralized and confused about its mission," said one staff member. "Not a single proposed reorganization has been finalized since 1981. It is clear that their intent is to keep the staff in disarray. Every time the press raises a question, they can point to a reorganization plan to

say they're taking care of the problem."

The infighting has continued

with the latest appointee, Naomi Churchill, a black attorney recruited last spring from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She previously worked with the Economic Development Administration in Chicago. Although she had no management experience, she was chosen over other candidates by a panel headed by Franke.

Churchill angered staff members during her first weeks on the job by frequently questioning their work, rejecting advice, banning at least one staffer from talking to another and warning employes not to talk to reporters. She insists that she be addressed as "esquire" and does not permit employes to use her first name.

Churchill denied in an interview that she was "at war" with her staff. But she said: "This is a very difficult job. There are some who want me to succeed and some who don't. I do civil rights because I absolutely don't have a choice. I am a sucker for the underdog and this is an opportunity to make things right . . . . I intend to succeed. The staff is much better than people think; the department is not as bad as some feel."

But Churchill, responding to staff complaints about her frequent rewriting and changing of agency reports and briefing papers, said, "I am demanding. Things go out of here done by GS-14s at the third-grade {writing} level."

The main flap since Churchill took over early this summer involves her editing of a review team's extensive report on the performance of departmental agencies in Florida, where major equal-rights deficiencies were found. Staff members have complained that her editing seriously watered down the findings.

Churchill denied in an interview that she had changed the thrust of the Florida report. But she refused to release either the final or draft versions unless a freedom-of-information request was filed. Both documents later were released independently by the department.

A comparison of the two versions indicated that the editing led to significant changes, making the review team's findings seem less critical.

The team's five detailed pages of general findings on Soil Conservation Service problems were reduced to eight typewritten lines in the final version; two pages of findings on the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service were cut to half a page.

Other changes occurred throughout the field team's lengthy report. In most instances, the team's specific citations of civil rights and affirmative action violations in various Agriculture Department state and county offices, intended by the team as a guide for corrective action, were reduced to vagueness.

Civil rights problems at the department broke into the open in 1983 when Isidore Rodriguez, a Republican operative who headed the office, sent a memo to then-Secretary John R. Block suggesting that the department become a model for the Reagan administration to undercut civil rights enforcement.

Block disavowed the memo and Lyng, deputy secretary at the time, fired Rodriguez. "He never should have been hired," Lyng said recently.

Congressional investigations and Lyng's 1986 order notwithstanding, a number of the Rodriguez proposals actually have taken effect.

He proposed, for example, that the department resist an EEOC requirement to set goals to speed affirmative action and minority hiring. A plan developed by the civil rights staff stalled at Franke's office and still has not been made final, although Churchill said that an EEOC October deadline will be met.

Rodriguez proposed a "decentralization" of enforcement activity, allowing each agency to handle its own civil rights programs -- a move that one staff member called "putting foxes in charge of the henhouse." The halving of the civil rights office's budget effectively moved most enforcement into the agencies, and met another Rodriguez suggestion that spending be cut.

"The problem now is that the number of complaints has increased greatly, but we have not been able to do the required field investigations and the staff cannot keep pace with the workload," a disgruntled staff member said. "The result is that all this lets the offending agencies investigate themselves. You can predict the results."