U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Farm Agencies' Field Structure Needs Major Overhaul

RCED-91-09: Published: Jan 29, 1991. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 1991.

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One or more of the 5 farm service agencies maintains a presence in almost every one of the nation's 3,150 counties. In key farm programs, USDA is managed at the grass-roots level by its constituents. Although this organization has made USDA successful in responding to its clients, the heavy constituent involvement makes the Department slow to recognize the need to make changes in the field structure. Operating this decentralized field network is also costly. In fiscal year 1989, 4 of the 5 farm service agencies spent approximately $2.4 billion and required over 63,000 staff years to administer their programs in over 11,000 county offices. These expenditures translate to about $1,100 in federal administration costs per farm, using USDA's definition of a farm as having sales of $1,000 or more. Field office collocation occurs when two or more agencies can share common office space; field office consolidation occurs within individual agencies where the work of two or more sites can be performed at a single location.

USDA can realize significant cost savings and efficiency improvements by aggressively pursuing incremental measures--resource-sharing initiatives in collocated offices where USDA agencies (and other federal agencies) now occupy common space. GAO has identified several such initiatives: one telecommunications initiative is expected to save $3.75 million annually for participating offices; another initiative is expected to yield $12.6 million in savings over 10 years to participating collocated offices. GAO's limited survey of similar initiatives in seven midwestern states identified estimated savings in the tens of thousands of dollars in some collocated offices. Typically, these initiatives included sharing reception services, copying services, printing costs, and mail services. Nevertheless, the Department is not adequately promoting or monitoring these initiatives. According to responsible officials, collocation monitoring activities have increased in response to our earlier reports, but these officials are still not tracking cost-savings information because USDA's top management has not requested them to do so. USDA's management tool for implementing collocation and other cost-savings initiatives in the field--the state and local Food and Agriculture Councils (FAC)--has had reduced status because of a lack of interest at USDA headquarters in recent years. Although the Department has recently institutionalized the FAC liaison in headquarters, it has yet to use the FACS as a coordination mechanism for aggressively pursuing cost savings. Office consolidations can also save a significant amount. The Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) consolidated 24 offices in 10 states between 1987 and 19689, projecting first-year savings of $1.2 million. ASCS and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) have also consolidated some field operations because of budget pressures and/or declining work loads. Yet, as of December 1989, nearly half of the states had ASCS and SCS offices in 90 percent or more of their counties. Other offices could be consolidated. For example, most ACS county offices had administrative costs of 3 to 4 percent of program outlays, but GAO identified over 50 county offices where administrative costs exceeded program outlays during fiscal year 1989 and over 800 county offices where administrative costs were 10 to 100 percent of program outlays. USDA would save over $90 million annually if ASCS consolidated its high-cost offices.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: The Congress may wish to consider working with USDA to take greater advantage of opoortunities to consolidate local offices where farm clients may be served through a multicounty operation as or more efficiently and at less cost to the U.S. taxpayer.

  2. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: Now that the Congress has completed its work on the 1990 farm bill, it may wish to hold hearings to (1) determine why USDA has not implemented its own task force's recommendations for integrating the farm agencies and (2) explore the prospect of reorganizing these agencies in conjunction with congressional deliberations on the program and policy provisions of the 1995 farm bill.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that field office consolidations are undertaken where feasible in terms of cost savings and without disrupting program delivery, the administrators of FmHA, Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), Soil Conservation Service (SCS), as well as other USDA agencies with significant field presence, should prepare annual reports to the Secretary of Agriculture and the congress identifying potential consolidation candidates on the basis of work load and other relevant criteria. The Secretary should then use this information in working with the congress and other interested parties in carrying out consolidations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service

  2. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that field office consolidations are undertaken where feasible in terms of cost savings and without disrupting program delivery, the administrators of FmHA, Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), Soil Conservation Service (SCS), as well as other USDA agencies with significant field presence, should prepare annual reports to the Secretary of Agriculture and the congress identifying potential consolidation candidates on the basis of work load and other relevant criteria. The Secretary should then use this information in working with the congress and other interested parties in carrying out consolidations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: To ensure that field office consolidations are undertaken where feasible in terms of cost savings and without disrupting program delivery, the administrators of FmHA, Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), Soil Conservation Service (SCS), as well as other USDA agencies with significant field presence, should prepare annual reports to the Secretary of Agriculture and the congress identifying potential consolidation candidates on the basis of work load and other relevant criteria. The Secretary should then use this information in working with the congress and other interested parties in carrying out consolidations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service

  4. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: To encourage collocated offices to provide convenient service to farmers and rural residents at the least cost to the Department, the Secretary of Agriculture should implement the necessary management controls to ensure that (1) cost savings data are maintained on resource-sharing initiatives undertaken at each collocated office and (2) the potential for additional cost savings at these locations is reported annually through the FACs to the Secretary. The state and local FACs should then work with USDA's top management to develop strategic plans for implementing additional initiatives at USDA's 2,040 collocated offices nationwide.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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