Homeland Security:

Agriculture Specialists' Views of Their Work Experiences After Transfer to DHS

GAO-07-209R: Published: Nov 14, 2006. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2006.

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The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred responsibility for certain port inspections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to the newly created Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Specifically, the act transferred the responsibility for inspecting passengers, baggage, cargo, and mail entering the country in airplanes, ships, trucks, and railcars for prohibited agricultural materials that may serve as carriers of foreign pests and diseases. USDA estimates that these biological invaders cost the American economy tens of billions of dollars annually in lower crop values, eradication programs, and emergency payments to farmers. Beginning in March 2003, more than 1,800 agriculture specialists who had formerly reported to USDA became CBP employees, as CBP incorporated the protection of U.S. agriculture into its primary antiterrorism mission. In addition to protecting U.S. agriculture, CBP's mission is to detect and prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States, interdict illegal drugs and other contraband, and apprehend individuals who are attempting to enter the United States illegally. Responding to congressional concerns that the transfer of agricultural inspections to CBP could shift the focus away from agriculture to CBP's other mission priorities, GAO reported in May 2006 on the coordination of USDA and DHS to ensure that U.S. agriculture is protected from accidentally or intentionally introduced pests and disease. In preparing this report, we surveyed a representative sample of CBP's agriculture specialists on their work experiences before and after the transfer and included the responses to the survey's 31 multiple-choice questions in the report. The survey also asked two open-ended questions: (1) What is going well with respect to your work as an agriculture specialist? and (2) What would you like to see changed or improved with respect to your work as an agriculture specialist? Congress asked us to analyze the content of the narrative responses to the open-ended questions contained in the survey. Specifically, Congress asked us to identify the common themes in the narrative responses and determine the percentage of agriculture specialists giving answers consistent with each theme. We provided Congressional staff with a formal briefing on our findings on October 17, 2006. This report summarizes the results of that briefing, including the five most common themes for each question.

In summary, the narrative responses to the open-ended questions suggest morale issues among CBP agriculture specialists. Respondents typically provided more examples or went into greater detail in answering our question on what needs to be changed or improved. This question generated a total of 185 pages of comments--roughly 4 times more than that generated by the responses to our question on what is going well. Further, "Nothing is going well" was the second most frequent response to the question on what is going well. In addition, the narratives generally corroborate the responses to the relevant multiple-choice questions in the survey. For example, related to the specialists' perception that the agriculture safety mission has been compromised, 59 percent of experienced specialists indicated that they are doing either somewhat or many fewer inspections since the transfer, and 60 percent indicated that they are doing somewhat or many fewer interceptions. Similarly, related to working relationships, 64 percent of these specialists indicated that they do not believe that CBP management respects their work.

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