Soil and Wetlands Conservation:

Soil Conservation Service Making Good Progress but Cultural Issues Need Attention

RCED-94-241: Published: Sep 27, 1994. Publicly Released: Sep 27, 1994.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Soil Conservation Service's (SCS) conservation compliance and swampbuster programs, focusing on whether: (1) recent SCS reforms will help it better manage the two programs; and (2) additional improvements are needed to ensure effective program management.

GAO found that: (1) although SCS has initiated extensive reforms to effectively manage its conservation compliance and swampbuster programs, additional reforms are needed; (2) although SCS substantially revised its guidance to county offices to provide better technical instructions on how to develop conservation plans and identify wetlands, it has not instituted a follow-up system to ensure that county offices revise deficient plans; (3) SCS has developed new enforcement procedures, but its oversight staff lack the authority to require these offices to follow their recommendations; (4) although SCS is developing an information system to track violations, it has not established performance goals for the conservation compliance and swampbuster programs; (5) one of the barriers that inhibits the effective implementation of SCS reforms is the conflict between traditional and new SCS regulatory roles; (6) SCS county office staff are reluctant to cite farmers for violations because citations could result in their loss of farm program benefits; (7) SCS has historically worked with farmers to provide technical assistance and foster voluntary conservation programs; (8) SCS is often in the conflicting position of acting as adviser and regulator; and (9) SCS needs to change its corporate culture if it is to effectively administer its regulatory responsibilities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) performance goals, measures, and indicators for soil and wetland conservation for FY 1996, 1997, and 1998 were included in the President's FY 1998 budget submission.

    Recommendation: In order for SCS to develop the information needed to manage these programs and for USDA, Congress, and others to better understand their performance, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of SCS to set performance goals for soil and wetlands conservation, annually assess progress towards these goals, and submit the results to Congress in the USDA annual budget submission.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 1, 1994, NRCS gave clear oversight authority for NRCS state and county offices to assistant chiefs. Further, as part of NRCS's reorganization, it has eliminated the positions of the assistant chiefs and assigned their responsibilities, including oversight authority, to regional conservationists.

    Recommendation: To improve SCS management of the conservation compliance and swampbuster programs and to provide adequate oversight of the agency's state and county offices, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of SCS to give the assistant chiefs clear oversight authority of SCS state county offices to ensure that conservation plans and wetlands identifications follow the revised guidance and that these offices fully and uniformly enforce these programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The status review process has been revised in accordance with this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve SCS management of the conservation compliance and swampbuster programs and to provide adequate oversight of the agency's state and county offices, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of SCS to give state offices responsibility for conducting annual status reviews for the conservation compliance and swampbuster programs to avoid the conflict that county office staff encounter between advisory and regulatory roles.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was instituted into the overall process for conducting status reviews in 1996 and incorporated into the National Food Security Act Manual.

    Recommendation: To improve SCS management of the conservation compliance and swampbuster programs and to provide adequate oversight of the agency's state and county offices, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of SCS to establish an annual status review process for the swampbuster program to assess farmers' compliance with the wetlands regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The cultural conflict has primarily been resolved through a strategy of issuing rules, regulations, and policies for each compliance, and providing detailed training to all employees. Policies and procedures for each program or activity are in a national manual. In addition, the cultural conflict between the traditional NRCS role of fostering voluntary conservation by farmers and its new regulatory role is provided through the National Planning Procedures Handbook, an orientation course for new employees, information material developed by the agency, national training workshops and conferences, and state/local workshops and conferences.

    Recommendation: Because changing SCS regulatory responsibilities require cultural changes, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of SCS to develop and implement a strategy to resolve the cultural conflict between the traditional SCS role of fostering voluntary conservation by farmers and its new regulatory role. This strategy could include training of staff to help them adapt to their regulatory responsibilities and requiring SCS headquarters to increase oversight of and the accountability of state and county offices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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