Estimated Personnel Needs of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service--Are They Reliable?

FPCD-80-5: Published: Nov 26, 1979. Publicly Released: Nov 29, 1979.

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The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) administers farm commodity and land-use programs through a network of service offices in States and counties. Each State has an administrative office to provide oversight and support to county offices, but most services to the farmer take place at over 2,700 federally funded county offices. The ASCS budget request for personnel increased significantly after fiscal year 1977 due to the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 and other Department of Agriculture policy decisions. A request was made for GAO to review the validity of ASCS work measurement and workload forecasting systems for determining staffing requirements.

Weaknesses found in ASCS systems include: ASCS work measurement standards are based on past data and, therefore, include whatever inefficiencies may result from the way work is actually done. Too often ASCS changes its definitions for units of output, which makes determining the accuracy of its workload projections impossible. Statistical sampling procedures need to be changed to conform to accepted practices and assure that the sample of work measurement counties accurately represents the work done by all county offices. Recording of workload information is poorly controlled. Finally, documentation is lacking to support assumptions about increased work resulting from the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 and the Secretary of Agriculture's policy changes. Top management support is the key to implementing needed improvements. While field managers should have flexibility to manage day-to-day operations, headquarters top management has a vital role to assure that ASCS is operating effectively. ASCS headquarters need improvement in several areas, such as proper analysis, adequate direction to county offices, evaluation of alternative possibilties, balancing the number of staff in State offices, and combining some county offices that have small workloads.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

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

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, ASCS to: perform methods studies or other similar studies to find the most efficient way of doing the tasks being measured; perform a small initial statistical sample and, on the basis of its results, assess the costs and benefits of obtaining a more representative agencywide sample of county offices; improve controls for collecting data from all counties about the number of units completed, with the controls requiring that output be recorded as completed and that recordkeeping be done in the same way at each county office; decide on the best definition for a completed unit of work as output for a given task, with the definition not changing unless organization or procedural changes make it obsolete; document the process of and basis for assumptions used to estimate workload and keep data on program changes following major policy or legislative decisions; and establish a review process for comparing workload projections to actual work done. The Secretary should also direct the ASCS Administrator to: strengthen the decisionmaking process for buying new equipment by determining organizational needs, doing cost-benefit analysis, properly evaluating competing equipment, considering the advantages of buying equipment in bulk, and by providing direction to State and county offices on the best buy for the money; perform a needs analysis for low-density and combined county office funding; review staffing imbalances in State offices and the need to have an office in each State; and review the current county office field structure to find out what county offices could be combined without affecting the quality of service to farmers.

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