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Highlights

What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken actions to ensure that component agencies include veterinarians in workforce planning efforts for meeting routine needs, but the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not done so. GAO has identified top leadership involvement as a key principle for workforce planning. For example, USDA provided guidance to its component agencies to assess and develop strategies for its workforce. In accordance with this guidance, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)—the agency that inspects slaughter plants—developed a workforce plan that included recruitment incentives and other strategies for veterinarians. HHS's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also included veterinarians in its workforce plans, but HHS did not provide guidance or direction to FDA or other component agencies to do so. GAO recommended in 2009 that USDA and HHS conduct department-wide assessments of their veterinarian workforces. The efforts of USDA and its component agencies met the intent of the recommendation. GAO believes that the recommendation to HHS is still valid. Direction and guidance from HHS could help integrate its component agencies' workforce planning efforts for veterinarians into a department-wide assessment.

USDA participated in a government-wide study to estimate the veterinarians needed to respond to animal disease outbreaks, but because of limitations in the study, the estimates are not reliable for purposes of effective emergency response planning. For example, the estimates were based on a USDA model that had not been verified or validated. Moreover, USDA has not developed a detailed plan to augment or train its workforce to respond to an economically devastating or highly contagious outbreak. Without reliable estimates of the veterinarians needed or how it will augment and train its workforce, USDA cannot ensure it will have enough veterinarians to adequately respond.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal agencies have taken steps toward achieving the goals outlined in OPM's government-wide strategic plan for the veterinarian workforce, primarily through an interagency group OPM created. However, in each of the three goals, the interagency group did not follow through on next steps and made limited progress. For example, to improve recruiting, OPM granted government-wide direct-hire authority in 2009 to enable agencies to hire qualified veterinarians without regard to certain federal hiring requirements. However, OPM did not follow through on plans to review agencies' use of the authority. As a result, OPM cannot determine the overall impact on recruitment or whether the authority should continue or be modified. Monitoring and evaluating progress toward human capital goals is among the key principles GAO has identified for effective strategic workforce planning. According to OPM officials, the group did not consistently monitor progress toward goals in part because it did not have sufficient leadership support from participating agencies. OPM and group members, including USDA and HHS, recognize a need for a higher level of leadership but have not identified officials to serve in this capacity. Obtaining leadership support—including from USDA and HHS, the major federal employers of civilian veterinarians—and monitoring and evaluating progress could help emphasize the importance of completing work under these goals and better position OPM to ensure progress or take appropriate actions if progress is limited.

Why GAO Did This Study

USDA and HHS veterinarians perform crucial work for public and animal health and for emergency response to an economically devastating or highly contagious animal disease—where USDA has a lead role. In 2009, USDA and HHS committed to department-wide efforts to address veterinarian workforce challenges, such as recruitment. In 2010, OPM issued a strategic plan for federal veterinarians to help improve recruiting initiatives and emergency response plans.

GAO was asked to review workforce planning for federal veterinarians. This report examines (1) department-wide efforts USDA and HHS have made for their routine veterinarian workforces, (2) the extent to which USDA has identified the veterinarians needed for emergency response to an animal disease outbreak, and (3) the steps OPM and other federal agencies have taken to achieve the goals of the government-wide strategic plan for the veterinarian workforce. GAO reviewed USDA, HHS, and government-wide workforce plans and interviewed relevant officials.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that USDA assess and address veterinarian workforce needs for emergency response to an animal disease outbreak, and that OPM review agencies' use of direct-hire authority for veterinarians and monitor and evaluate progress and obtain leadership support for achieving government-wide veterinary workforce goals. USDA partially agreed, noting that it has taken steps to assess its emergency needs. GAO believes the recommendation remains valid. OPM agreed with both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
1. To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out its activities, and to prepare for an emergency involving a large-scale animal disease outbreak, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to assess the veterinarian workforce needs under possible scenarios for an emergency response to a large-scale animal disease outbreak. Building on the Talent Management Advisory Council's (TMAC) efforts to determine the veterinarian workforce needed to respond to an animal disease outbreak, the assessment should include the number and types of veterinarians needed, the sources required to have a sufficient workforce to respond, and the training needed to carry out their roles.
Closed - Implemented
As of December 2018, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) took several actions to address this recommendation. In 2017, APHIS analyzed its workforce needs for its response to the 2015 highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak. The analysis included the number of veterinarians deployed, the length and frequency of deployments, sources of federal and state veterinarians to help fill workforce shortages as temporary responders, and the training needs of emergency response personnel. As part of this effort, APHIS updated its incident management team position descriptions, including for positions requiring veterinarians or specific types of veterinary expertise. In November 2018, APHIS completed an analysis of simulated outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and estimates of veterinarian surge demand for responding to the outbreaks. The analysis included scenarios with foot-and-mouth disease originating in different states and different types of farms and spreading to as many as 11 states. In addition, the analysis included an estimate of the number of response personnel, including veterinarians, deployed during each week of an outbreak.
Office of Personnel Management 2. To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out its activities, and to improve government-wide veterinarian workforce planning efforts, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management should initiate efforts to monitor and evaluate TMAC's progress toward government-wide goals for the federal veterinary workforce and work with TMAC members to obtain leadership support, particularly from USDA and HHS, for making progress toward the goals.
Closed - Not Implemented
According to OPM, it attempted to obtain leadership support while the Talent Management Advisory Council (TMAC) was active, but no other agency took up a leadership role. As a result, in May 2015, OPM decided to sunset TMAC and instead serve in an advisory capacity on agencies' federal veterinarian workforce efforts.
Office of Personnel Management 3. To improve the ability of the federal veterinarian workforce to carry out its activities, and to improve government-wide veterinarian workforce planning efforts, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management should evaluate whether the need for government-wide direct-hire authority for veterinarians continues to exist and modify or terminate the authority as appropriate.
Closed - Implemented
OPM completed an evaluation of the need for government-wide direct-hire authority for veterinarians in June 2017. According to OPM's summary, the evaluation suggested that the government-wide direct-hire authority should remain active. As part of its evaluation, OPM obtained information from USDA and HHS on hiring challenges, hiring projections, and recruitment efforts for veterinarians.

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