Farm Programs:

Administrative Requirements Reduced and Further Program Delivery Changes Possible

RCED-98-98: Published: Apr 20, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 20, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the administrative requirements placed on farmers participating in the revamped farm programs, as well as the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) efficiency in delivering program services to farmers, focusing on the: (1) extent to which the changes to the farm programs resulting from the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 have reduced farmers' administrative requirements; and (2) possibility of having USDA use alternative delivery methods to more efficiently administer farm programs.

GAO noted that: (1) farmers are now generally spending less time on administrative requirements than they did before the 1996 act; (2) the number of required visits to county offices has declined, as has the amount of time spent completing paperwork for the farm programs; (3) the Farm Service Agency (FSA) could transact more with business farmers through the mail and by telephone and computer, thus increasing the efficiency of its operations; (4) using alternative delivery methods should allow USDA to operate with fewer staff and offices, which could reduce expenses by millions of dollars; (5) while GAO found no statutory or regulatory requirements that direct farmers to visit county offices, changing delivery methods to rely more on such approaches will require fundamental changes in the FSA's long-standing practices and relationships with farmers; and (6) in particular, such methods would reduce farmers' personal contact with county office staff and place greater administrative responsibility on farmers to ensure that required paperwork is completed and submitted in a timely fashion.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department, in its response to the Congress and OMB, did not address the key recommendation "to study the costs and benefits of using alternative delivery methods to accomplish mission objectives." USDA stated that it must retain its county office structure to provide face-to-face service to selected minority and small-farm program participants. GAO continues to believe that continued pressure to reduce federal expenditures requires USDA to look for ways to deliver services more efficiently. Both the Senate and House Agriculture committees initiated legislation during 2000 to require USDA to provide farmers with internet access for filing and retrieving data from USDA.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, FSA, in coordination with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Rural Development mission area (FSA's Service Center partners), to study the costs and benefits of using alternative delivery methods to accomplish mission objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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