U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Problems Continue to Hinder the Timely Processing of Discrimination Complaints

RCED-99-38: Published: Jan 29, 1999. Publicly Released: Jan 29, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) efforts to process discrimination complaints, focusing on: (1) the timeliness of USDA's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) processing and closing of program and employment discrimination complaints; and (2) the reasons for delays in the processes.

GAO noted that: (1) USDA's efforts to process discrimination complaints are falling short of its goals for closing its complaint backlog--one of the Secretary's top priorities; (2) the dates USDA established for closing its backlogs of program and employment discrimination complaints have been extended several times beyond its initial target date of July 1, 1997; (3) as of October 1, 1998, USDA had closed only 44 percent of its 1,088 backlog program cases and 64 percent of its 2,142 backlog employment cases; (4) its most recent goal was to close all remaining backlog cases by December 31, 1998--the fourth deadline it has set for backlog program cases and its third deadline for backlog employment cases; (5) in addition: (a) many of USDA's new program cases are missing interim milestones and are therefore not on track for being closed in a timely manner; and (b) the time spent processing its employment cases continues to far exceed federally mandated time frames; (6) for example, on October 1, 1998, 82 percent of the 397 employment cases being investigated by USDA had already exceeded the 180-day mandated time frame for investigations; (7) although USDA has provided additional resources to enhance its capabilities to address discrimination complaints, a number of problems are impeding its efforts to process complaints more expeditiously; (8) these problems include such long-standing issues as: (a) continuing management turnover and reorganizations in OCR; (b) inadequate staff and managerial expertise; (c) a lack of clear, up-to-date guidance and procedures; and (d) poor working relationships and communication within OCR and between the office and other USDA entities; (9) furthermore, the Department is not consistently using alternative dispute resolution techniques, such as mediation, to address workplace and other disputes before they become formal employment complaints; and (10) federal law and regulations encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution in resolving federal workplace and other disputes.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of USDA's processes for resolving employment and program discrimination complaints, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Acting Assistant Secretary for Administration to establish target dates and ensure that they are met for: (1) issuing departmental regulations for the assisted and conducted program and employment complaints processes; and (2) revising the conducted program and employment complaints operations manuals and issuing an operations manual for assisted program complaints so that the manuals accurately reflect departmental regulations. In addition, develop procedures to ensure that departmental regulations and manuals are kept up-to-date to reflect subsequent organizational, policy, or procedural changes that can affect the implementation of USDA's civil rights program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA issued departmental regulations in March 1999 for processing employment, assisted program, and conducted program complaints. Instead of issuing operations manuals, USDA has issued Standard Operating Procedures on January 12, 2001, for employment complaints and has issued some Standard Operating Procedures for program complaints.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of USDA's processes for resolving employment and program discrimination complaints, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Acting Assistant Secretary for Administration to establish target dates and ensure that they are met for having the Director, OCR, implement the office's plans to relocate the OCR employees identified as lacking necessary skills and fill the vacated positions with employees who have appropriate civil rights expertise. Additionally, direct the Director, OCR, to assess the training needs of OCR's employees and implement a program to meet current and future training needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA is not relocating Office of Civil Rights employees that were identified as lacking necessary skills. Instead, the Office of Civil Rights issued a Long-Term Improvement Plan in October 2000. According to the plan, USDA will address personnel problems by: (1) identifying the knowledge/skills gap for all employees, (2) determining training needed for all employees to perform their job at acceptable levels, (3) developing Individual Training Plans for all employees, (4) setting aside budget for training, and (5) assuring employees are placed under performance standards and that ratings accurately reflect level of performance. USDA is in the process of carrying out these steps.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of USDA's processes for resolving employment and program discrimination complaints, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Acting Assistant Secretary for Administration to establish procedures for ensuring more effective consultation and communication by OCR with agency civil rights offices, Office of General Counsel, and other affected entities, particularly in implementing new processes, policies, and procedures that affect these organizations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA officials told the OIG that they were meeting monthly with the Office of Civil Rights. In addition, USDA's Office of Civil Rights drafted a procedure specifying the roles of the Office of Civil Rights, the Office of General Counsel, and the Office of Inspector General for reviewing program complaint decisions and settlement agreements. This was incorporated into USDA DM 4300-1, "EEO Complaints Processing Procedures," and was adopted on July 20, 2001.

    Recommendation: To improve the timeliness of USDA's processes for resolving employment and program discrimination complaints, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Acting Assistant Secretary for Administration to develop and implement a program for using alternative dispute resolution early in the program complaint process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: USDA's departmental regulations for processing program complaints do not include the use of alternative dispute resolution.

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