But let’s start with the good news.
“The most significant impact [of the savings] is we’re doing more with less,” Vilsack said in an interview with the Federal Diary, “and we’re also doing it in a way to save jobs and avoid furloughs.” While many agencies had to furlough employees because of government-wide budget cuts, “we did not have to do that because we basically were proactive” by finding efficiencies.
Offices were consolidated, construction projects were halted, travel was grounded and employees took early retirements and buyouts so USDA could become what it calls “a stronger and more efficient department.”
“Really proud of the work we have done,” Vilsack said as he traveled Tuesday between Des Moines and Kansas City.
Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, has been secretary since President Obama has been in the White House and he has no plans to leave before Obama does. One of his top goals is the “cultural transformation” of the department. He has defined that as “the process of creating a workplace where all employees and customers are treated with dignity and respect and provided the opportunity for success.”
It shouldn’t take a cultural transformation to achieve what should be the status quo. Other agencies are in the same situation. At least Vilsack acknowledges USDA needed lots of work.
“When I came into office there were a significant amount of complaints against the department that were pending and had been pending for literally decades, civil rights complaints,” he said. Black farmers, in particular, had long accused the department of discriminatory practices.
Cultural transformation also means developing a diverse workforce with clear paths to career development and good work-life balance using tools such as telework. Telework also saves money. Department figures indicate telework has saved $18 million in transit subsidies, while helping to increase productivity and operating efficiency.
Vilsack has made developing a more diverse workforce a priority. Statistics indicate it is paying off. “I think what you’ll find,” he said, “is we have one of the most, if not the most diverse SES classes of any federal department.”
African Americans are about 14 percent of USDA senior-level civil servants, including grade 15 and Senior Executive Service (SES) members, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. USDA figures say 19 percent of its SES members are African American. Both figures are greater than the black percentage of the general population.
Melissa Baumann, secretary-treasurer of the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council, said the cultural transformation program has increased diversity, but has done so “without also ensuring that employees receive training, good performance feedback, and opportunities for career development [which] means that the Agency has a revolving door,” a charge Vilsack rejects.
“I think what you’ll see is over the last six-plus years, a more diverse workforce, a workforce that we continue to work on to improve morale,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be… There are a lot of reasons for that.”
Morale certainly needs continued work.
Goal five in USDA’s Strategic Plan is for the department to place in the top 10 of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government list. It is published by the Partnership for Public Service, which uses data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The latest results aren’t good.
USDA ranked 13 of 19 large agencies in the Best Places 2014 list. The index score was up slightly from 2013, but the 2014 number was still the second lowest score since 2003, when the ratings began. The department consistently rates below other large agencies. Notably, the rating for Agriculture’s senior leaders dropped 2.1 percent from 2013.
What’s the problem?
“It’s complicated,” Vilsack said.
Complications include USDA’s size (about 85,000 employees), wide-ranging responsibilities (including Forest Service, nutrition services, farm services, rural development services, international services) that are provided all over the world.
“It’s a challenge,” he said, “but we’re going to continue working on it.”