U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights

GAO-09-62: Published: Oct 22, 2008. Publicly Released: Oct 22, 2008.

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For decades, numerous federal reports have described serious weaknesses in USDA's civil rights programs--in particular, in resolving discrimination complaints and providing minority farmers with access to programs. In 2002, Congress authorized the position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (ASCR) at USDA to provide leadership for resolving these long-standing problems. GAO was asked to assess USDA's efforts to (1) resolve discrimination complaints, (2) report on minority participation in farm programs, and (3) strategically plan its efforts. GAO also reviewed experiences of other federal agencies to develop options for addressing the issues. This report is based on new and prior work, including analysis of ASCR's discrimination complaint management, strategic planning, and interviews with officials of USDA and other agencies, as well as 20 USDA stakeholder groups.

ASCR's difficulties in resolving discrimination complaints persist--ASCR has not achieved its goal of preventing backlogs of complaints. The credibility of USDA's efforts has been and continues to be undermined by ASCR's faulty reporting and disparities in ASCR's data. Even such basic information as the backlog of complaints is subject to wide variation in ASCR's reports to the public and Congress. For example, ASCR's public claim in July 2007 that it had successfully reduced a backlog of about 690 discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2004 and held its caseload to manageable levels drew a questionable portrait of progress. By July 2007, ASCR's backlog had surged to 885 complaints and ASCR officials were in the midst of planning to hire attorneys to address that backlog. Also, some steps ASCR had taken to speed up its work may have sometimes been counterproductive and adversely affected the quality of its work. ASCR does not have a plan to correct these problems. USDA published three annual reports on minority farmers' participation in farm programs, as required by law. However, USDA considers much of its data to be unreliable because they are based on employees' visual observations about participants' race and ethnicity that may not be correct. USDA states that it needs the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) approval to collect more reliable data. ASCR started to seek OMB's approval in 2004 but, as of August 2008, had not followed through to obtain approval. ASCR's strategic planning does not address key steps needed to ensure USDA provides fair and equitable services to all customers and upholds the civil rights of its employees. For example, strategic planning should be based to a large extent on the perspectives of stakeholders, but stakeholders' views are not explicitly reflected in ASCR's plan. Also, ASCR could better measure performance to gauge its progress. ASCR's strategic plan also does not link funding with anticipated results or discuss the potential for using performance information for identifying USDA's performance gaps. The experience of other agencies in addressing significant performance issues provides important insights and options that are relevant for addressing certain long-standing ASCR issues. First, Congress required executives at three federal agencies to be subject to statutory performance agreements. Such an agreement for ASCR could be used to achieve specific expectations by providing additional incentives and mandatory public reporting. Second, Congress has authorized oversight boards for a variety of purposes, including one for the Internal Revenue Service to oversee performance. A USDA civil rights oversight board could be authorized to oversee USDA's activities to identify weaknesses that need to be addressed and to provide transparency. Third, an effective USDA ombudsman--one who is independent, impartial, fully capable of conducting meaningful investigations and who can maintain confidentiality--could assist in resolving civil rights concerns at USDA. USDA has some authority to establish an ombudsman but has not done so.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2012, action on a new farm bill is pending and it is not known whether Congress will establish a USDA civil rights oversight board.

    Matter: To better ensure sufficient oversight and management direction are provided to guide USDA's civil rights efforts, to make responsibility for improvement clear, and to make USDA's performance more transparent, Congress may wish to consider establishing a USDA civil rights oversight board.

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2012, action on a new farm bill is pending and it is not known whether Congress will make the Assistant Secretary subject to a performance agreement.

    Matter: To better ensure sufficient oversight and management direction are provided to guide USDA's civil rights efforts, to make responsibility for improvement clear, and to make USDA's performance more transparent, Congress may wish to consider making USDA's Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights subject to a statutory performance agreement.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA has not fully implemented this recommendation. As of August 2012, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) had not updated its strategic plan since our report was issued in October 2008. From October 1, 2009, to November 20, 2011, OASCR was placed under Departmental Management and during that time was not required to develop or update its own strategic plan, according to OASCR officials. Since November 20, 2011, OASCR has reported directly to the Secretary and has been working to develop its own strategic plan. On July 31, 2012, we obtained a revised draft of OASCR's strategic plan that covers fiscal years 2011-2015. This draft still has a number of shortcomings. For example, it (1) focuses primarily on the activities OASCR plans and does not unify OASCR's approach with the Office of Advocacy and Outreach, other USDA agencies, or the department as a whole; (2) does not describe the viewpoints and interests of USDA's external stakeholders, such as community-based organizations; and (3) does not fully address other key issues identified in our report, such as measuring performance to gauge progress, using performance information for identifying performance gaps and making program improvements, and identifying external and internal factors that can influence the achievement of its long-term goals.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA efforts to address civil rights issues and the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should develop a results-oriented department-level strategic plan for civil rights at USDA that unifies USDA's departmental approach with that of ASCR and the newly created Office of Advocacy and Outreach and that is transparent about USDA's efforts to address the concerns of stakeholders.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA has implemented this recommendation. In March 2011, USDA obtained the Office of Management and Budget's approval to collect race, ethnicity, and gender (REG) data for the USDA programs that serve agricultural producers and landowners. In October 2011, USDA published a departmental regulation to implement the use of a new form it later issued in January 2012 to collect REG data. REG data from the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Rural Development mission area, and Risk Management Agency should cover most of the programs that serve agricultural producers and landowners, according to USDA. USDA also is developing an outreach plan to identify additional programs that serve socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and will propose plans to collect demographic data at the USDA agencies responsible for these programs, as needed.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA efforts to address civil rights issues and the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should work expeditiously to obtain Office of Management and Budget's approval to collect the demographic data necessary for reliable reporting on race and ethnicity by USDA program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA has implemented this recommendation. USDA created a task force that reviewed more than 17,000 program discrimination complaints filed with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) in fiscal years 2000 through 2008. The task force documented the results of its review in a report, "Program Complaints Resolution Plan, USDA Civil Rights," dated December 9, 2009. The task force determined that about 3,800 complaints warranted further processing and estimated that about 600 complaints would be eligible for settlement. USDA determined that it could not further process these complaints under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act because most had exceeded the then applicable 2-year statute of limitations. According to USDA officials, to overcome the statute of limitations, USDA would need legislative relief and about $60 million to process the complaints and pay the estimated settlement costs, which it was still seeking as of August 2012. The task force also made 12 recommendations to OASCR to improve its complaint resolution process. OASCR agreed with most of the recommendations and has taken actions to address them, according to OASCR officials.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA efforts to address civil rights issues and the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should obtain an expert, independent, and objective legal examination of the basis, quality, and adequacy of a sample of USDA's prior investigations and decisions on civil rights complaints, along with suggestions for improvement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA has not fully implemented this recommendation. As of August 2012, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights' (OASCR) efforts to ensure data reliability of the iComplaints employee complaints database included a comprehensive set of business rules, a data integrity tool, and a quality review management module. Also, OASCR had developed and was implementing a plan to check the accuracy of the data entered for every program complaint in the Program Complaints Management System (PCMS). However, OASCR had not provided all of the documentation needed to assess whether its planned efforts contain key elements to ensure the accuracy, completeness, and reliability of the iComplaints and PCMS databases. For example, OASCR officials had neither provided documentation showing that the office developed departmental policy to ensure the consistent use of iComplaints and PCMS nor training to ensure the completeness of data in PCMS.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA efforts to address civil rights issues and the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should develop and implement a plan to ensure the accuracy, completeness and reliability of ASCR's databases on customer and employee complaints, and that provides for independent validation of ASCR's data quality.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: USDA has not fully implemented this recommendation. As of August 2012, USDA had developed a plan to improve resolution of discrimination complaints, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) had implemented many of the plan's actions, such as placing priority on processing program complaints facing the statute of limitations. However, USDA had more work to do on (1) establishing an electronic records management system; (2) implementing the Lean Six Sigma process; (3) conducting pilot efforts to explore establishing new time frame goals for intake, investigation, and adjudication activities to resolve employee and program complaints; and (4) providing documentation of new policies, procedures, guidance, and training needed to determine if new management controls cover the entire process for resolving complaints.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA efforts to address civil rights issues and the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should prepare and implement an improvement plan for resolving discrimination complaints that sets time frame goals and provides management controls for resolving complaints from beginning to end.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA has implemented this recommendation. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) completed efforts to explore the potential for an ombudsman office. It reached out to the Ombudsman Association and ombudsman programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation Security Administration, and National Institutes of Health. Initially, OASCR concluded an ombudsman would be helpful. However, during our discussion on July 25, 2012, the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights said he no longer supports the need for an ombudsman because of more recent improvements made by OASCR, including its increased staffing, use of Lean Six Sigma, development of standard operating procedures, and timely processing of complaints. On July 26, 2012, the Assistant Secretary signed a decision memorandum recommending that USDA not establish an ombudsman office. The memorandum stated that, by not establishing an ombudsman office, the Secretary and OASCR remain free to take necessary corrective actions to address departmental issues without deference to an independent ombudsman and the costs of an ombudsman office will be saved. On July 26, 2012, the Secretary also signed the decision memorandum, concurring with the Assistant Secretary's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA efforts to address civil rights issues and the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, the Secretary of Agriculture should further explore the potential for an ombudsman office to contribute to addressing the civil rights concerns of USDA customers and employees, including seeking legislative authority, as appropriate, to establish such an office and to ensure its effectiveness, and advise USDA's congressional oversight committees of the results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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