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Equal Employment Opportunity: Additional Actions Would Improve USDA's Collection and Reporting of Key Data

GAO-24-106791 Published: Nov 02, 2023. Publicly Released: Nov 02, 2023.
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Fast Facts

Agencies' annual reports on equal employment opportunity complaint data help Congress ensure the agencies are following workplace discrimination laws.

We reviewed three reports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues annually and found ways that the department could improve the accuracy, clarity, and completeness of the data. For example, we recommended that USDA fix a database error that resulted in inaccurate data, and that it disclose on its website which reports were affected by the error.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) submits to Congress annual reports that contain information regarding equal employment opportunity (EEO) discrimination complaints made by USDA employees. GAO examined the EEO discrimination complaint data included in two types of public reports that USDA submits to Congress: the Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act (No FEAR Act) reports and the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (Farm Bill) reports. GAO also examined data in the nonpublic Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Form 462 reports that USDA files with EEOC.

When examining the No FEAR Act reports and the EEOC Form 462 reports, GAO found inconsistencies in the data. For example, the reports differed on total number of complaints by basis of race (see figure). Representatives from USDA's EEO database vendor investigated and found that sometime before 2015, a database user had manually added “Hispanic/Latino” as an option for race for the No FEAR Act reports. However, “Hispanic/Latino” should be reported as national origin, according to EEOC guidance. By updating the database so that “Hispanic/Latino” only appears on the list of options for complaints by the basis of national origin, USDA will better ensure its No FEAR Act reports are accurate and in line with EEOC guidance. Furthermore, by disclosing this error on its website for past reports, USDA will better ensure the information it publishes is transparent.

USDA's Average Number of Complaints by Race Basis per Year, Fiscal Years 2015-2022

USDA's Average Number of Complaints by Race Basis per Year, Fiscal Years 2015-2022

GAO also found errors, incomplete source information, and unexplained changes in sources regarding the EEO discrimination complaint data included in some of USDA's Farm Bill reports. For example, USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) changed a source for its analysis of per capita complaints but did not explain the change in the affected reports. Additionally, none of the Farm Bill reports GAO reviewed included an explanation of the methods OASCR used to conduct the analyses in these reports. OASCR also does not have a staff-level review process in which someone independent from the work itself verifies that key facts, figures, and findings in the reports align with the sources and are correct. By including a section in USDA's Farm Bill reports that explains the methods OASCR staff used to analyze EEO discrimination complaints and implementing a process to review the quality of information, as called for in USDA guidance, OASCR would better ensure the transparency, accuracy, clarity, and completeness of information in its reports.

Why GAO Did This Study

The annual reports on employment discrimination complaint data that USDA submits to Congress play an important role in congressional oversight of USDA's compliance with federal laws. For effective oversight, the data in these reports need to be accurate, clear, and complete.

As part of a larger review in response to a provision in the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, GAO identified discrepancies in USDA's data and reporting on EEO discrimination complaints. This report is intended to bring these issues to the attention of USDA. In conducting its work, GAO compared data across the No FEAR Act, EEOC Form 462, and Farm Bill reports. GAO also reviewed USDA guidance and interviewed agency officials and representatives of the EEO database vendor.

Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations to USDA to improve its collection and reporting of EEO data. These recommendations include that USDA should update its EEO database, provide transparency about past errors in No FEAR Act reports, develop a quality review process for the Farm Bill reports, and add a section to those reports explaining the department's methods and analyses. USDA agreed with all six recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that OASCR updates the software for USDA's EEO database so that database users can only select categories for race consistent with EEOC guidance. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
As of January 2024, USDA reported that it updated iEntellitrak-Equal Employment Opportunity (ETK-EEO), the employment discrimination complaint tracking system used by the department's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. According to USDA documentation that we reviewed, the system is currently in use and the drop-down categories for race and national origin are aligned with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that OASCR updates USDA's website to note which of the department's No FEAR Act reports prior to 2022 may contain inaccurate data for complaints by the basis of race or national origin because of a data input error. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of January 2024, USDA has not implemented this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that OASCR documents and implements a process to review and compare selected complaint data in USDA's No FEAR Act and EEOC Form 462 reports, and identifies and resolves, as appropriate, any inconsistencies before issuing the No FEAR Act reports. (Recommendation 3)
Open
As of January 2024, USDA has not implemented this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that OASCR develops internal guidance on how to compare the data in USDA's No FEAR Act and EEOC Form 462 reports when reviewing for inconsistencies during the data review process. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As of January 2024, USDA has not implemented this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that OASCR adds a section to Farm Bill reports that explains the methods used to analyze EEO complaints, including data sources and any changes to those sources or related analyses that were made from the prior year. (Recommendation 5)
Open
As of January 2024, USDA reported that it has implemented this recommendation. We are reviewing USDA's documentation and will update the status of this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that OASCR documents and implements an internal quality review process for Farm Bill reports to identify and correct any errors and incomplete information. This process should include assigning the role of quality review to someone, independent from the work itself, who verifies that the key facts, figures, and findings align with the sources and are correctly reported. (Recommendation 6)
Open
As of January 2024, USDA reported that it has implemented this recommendation. We are reviewing USDA's documentation and will update the status of this recommendation.

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Data integrityData qualityDatabase management systemsDiscrimination complaintsEqual employment opportunityEqual employment opportunity complaintsFederal agenciesHuman capital managementFarmingPhysical disabilities