By Coleman Garrison
Since last week’s announcement that USDA is taking further steps in their efforts to reorganize the department, NACD has received additional information that we wanted to pass along to you, though many details are still to come.
First, USDA has communicated to NACD that its most recent proposal is in no way moving NRCS responsibilities for Farm Bill program administration out of NRCS. As listed in the above release under the “Reducing Redundancies” header, USDA writes “…some agencies maintain redundant administrative support functions, including human resources, information technology (IT), finance, procurement, and property management.” Instead of NRCS, FSA, and RMA having separate authorities, these “mission support activities will be merged at the mission area level across USDA.”
While these administrative functions may seem mundane, in practice they ensure consistent operations at the service center level. Any changes to these administrative support functions can also have a dramatic effect on the ability of conservation districts to operate. Unlike other partners of NRCS or stakeholders, conservation districts are intrinsically involved in the day-to-day operations of USDA service centers. NACD is concerned that moving hiring, information technology, leasing, and other administrative functions to another level may inhibit the speed at which these activities are accomplished. For example, when functions such as hiring new staff slows down, districts feel the brunt of the vacancies and have to absorb an increased workload.
Second, USDA is formally asking for public comment on its proposed reorganization plans, due by October 8, through a notice published today in the Federal Register. As a key conservation delivery partner to USDA, NACD and conservation districts require more stakeholder engagement than most in planning for the reorganization. NACD’s formal comments on the initial reorganization announcement back in May encouraged more stakeholder input and direct engagement with conservation districts. Public comments are a good step to receive feedback, but more direct engagement is needed. With direct engagement, we can offer concrete input and advice to the Agriculture Secretary on how conservation districts can help USDA to more effectively deliver conservation assistance and improve customer service—a goal we share with the department.
While NACD is continuing to support NRCS through this transition, we are concerned that moving administrative functions up another bureaucratic level will only create more headaches. NACD is committed to being good stewards of taxpayer resources and increasing efficiencies where it makes sense, but the effectiveness of these changes are equally if not more important. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which removing these decisions from the direct purview of NRCS will make administrative functions more effective.
While we do expect more information to be forthcoming, NACD is still working to inform you of our concerns with this proposal. If you have specific questions, we would also encourage you to forward those to NACD so we can compile those and present them to USDA. NACD will also work to prepare comments on this most recent proposal and will communicate these comments to you as well. Please always feel free to reach out with any other questions or concerns you have.