U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Problems in Processing Discrimination Complaints

T-RCED-00-286: Published: Sep 12, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2000.

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Lawrence J. Dyckman
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) efforts to process discrimination complaints, focusing on the: (1) timeliness and ability of USDA's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to process employment discrimination complaints; and (2) reasons for delays in the implementing GAO's previous recommendations.

GAO noted that: (1) a number of long-standing problems are impending USDA's efforts to improve delays in its processing of discrimination complaints within its Civil Rights Program, including: (a) continuing management turnover and reorganizations in USDA's 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; (2) USDA is not consistently using alternative dispute resolution techniques, such as mediation, to address workplace and other disputes before they become formal complaints; (3) USDA has drafted a long-term improvement plan to systematically address problems in the program which they plan to implement in October 2000; (4) to address personnel problems in OCR, USDA plans to: (a) develop an assessment of the skills needed for OCR; (b) implement training programs to properly educate employees; and (c) to conduct performance evaluations that would provide the basis for taking appropriate action in regard to employees who are not performing at acceptable levels; (5) OCR is in the process of issuing two operations manuals and several standard operating procedures for implementing regulations addressing complaint processing; (6) OCR's implementation of the program complaint process was hindered by agencies' disagreement with OCR about their role in the program complaint process and by inadequate OCR guidance; (7) OCR also has difficulties in developing effective working relationships with the Office of General Counsel, which further lead to inefficiencies and delays in processing complaints; (8) inadequate communication within OCR also contributed to low morale and productivity; (9) according to USDA's Assistant Secretary for Administration, OCR meets regularly with a committee of agency civil rights directors; (10) GAO's 1999 report on this matter found that USDA's Civil Rights Program had a long way to go before it achieved the Secretary's stated goal of making USDA the civil rights leader in the federal government; (11) plans to address civil rights complaints will require long-term implementation, including funding for hiring and training personnel; and (12) it appears as if the Secretary's goal, at least in the short term, remains elusive.

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