Build back better? One department’s turmoil shows Biden’s challenge ahead


Build back better? One department’s turmoil shows Biden’s challenge ahead

Biden sees climate change research as core to his agenda. The Trump team’s overhaul of USDA highlights a key roadblock.

USDA employees and outside experts are making the case that at the very least, the department should rapidly fill vacant slots — anywhere they see fit. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images


12/28/2020 04:30 AM EST

For President-elect Joe Biden, reversing changes and reviving morale in many parts of the executive branch won’t be easily done with the stroke of a pen and an executive order.

The Trump administration’s overhaul of two critical agenciesat the Agriculture Department shows how some of the disruptions are much stickier.

At the USDA, President Donald Trump’s appointees hollowed two research agencies after uprooting scientists responsible for studying threats facing the food system, including climate change — an effort they said at the time was about saving taxpayer dollars and decentralizing work in Washington.

Employees and advocates say a central piece of Biden’s agriculture agenda will rest on repairing the department overall to restore its focus on the environment, nutrition, food safety and more. But doing so will require rebuilding a piece of the federal bureaucracy that experienced a wholesale restructuring under Trump, one that could take years of effort.

The abrupt relocation in mid-2019 of the USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture from D.C. to Kansas City resulted in a wave of career-service employees leaving, hundreds of economic and research positions left unfilled, and delays ofdozens of vital research reportson topics like conservation, nutrition assistance and the farm economy.

“It’s hard to pretend it never happened,” said former USDA Chief Economist Joseph Glauber, now a senior fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “You’ve uprooted everyone’s lives, you had all these people quit — it’s a tough situation.”

Secretary Sonny Perdue’s decision to relocate ERS and NIFA was widely regarded as part of a broader effort within the department to demote important research. Attempts by Democrats to stop the move failed on Capitol Hill, and the relocation will likely be a lasting piece of Perdue’s legacy at USDA.

The tough act of reversing the move

Biden and his nominee for Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, appear to have few options for quickly undoing steep damage to the agencies’ manpower, morale and productivity.

Moving hundreds of employees back to D.C. — many of whom are new hires brought on to work in the Kansas City office — would be yet another upheaval for the USDA employees who still feel exhausted by the high-profile battle over where they’re required to report to work.

Further complicating the situation, Missouri and Kansas state governments have invested millions in economic incentives as part of a competitive bidding process among multiple states vying to host the researchers. And scores of USDA employees who moved from D.C., along with a wave of new hires, have settled into their new lives in the Kansas City region.

“If ERS mandated that everyone in K.C. move to D.C., it would be a disservice,” said a current ERS employee granted anonymity to freely discuss attitudes among staff. “At the end of the day, many are happy in K.C. and have no desire to move. And if anything Covid has shown, it is that we can successfully collaborate remotely.”

The first order of business

USDA employees and outside experts are making the case that at the very least, the department should rapidly fill vacant slots — anywhere they see fit.

Since the relocation plans were announced, approximately two-thirds of employees left, many of whom were top experts in their fields with decades of experience at the department.

On his first day on the job, Vilsack should begin reviewing and reconsidering the Kansas City move, and examine how that has created a “demoralized workforce,” per a memo to the Biden transition from the “Climate 21 Project.” And, USDA needs to hire at least 400 more people at ERS and NIFA to restore staffing levels to what they were during the Obama administration,the memo says.

The memo was written by a group of experts who analyzed how federal government programs should be used to fight climate change. Its authors include Robert Bonnie, the former Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment under former President Barack Obama who is now leading the USDA landing team,which makes it likely that some of the recommendations will be implemented.

President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo, File

The experts also called on Vilsack and his aides to evaluate to what degree output was disrupted, in part by requesting a third-party review of projects that were postponed or abandoned because of the move.

“The forced relocation to Kansas City has also meant dozens of reports and millions in research funding have been delayed or scuttled, setting back critical climate change and other research,” it said.

Researchers within the conservation and environment branch of ERS are anticipating that the change in administration will bring an intensified workload and elevated public profile, an ERS employee said.

“The feeling is that climate change is going to become a big deal,” the person said. “They’re going to be busy from Day One.”

The Agriculture Department has been bringing new employees on board more efficiently than current staff anticipated, but gaping holes in the agencies’ rosters still exist.

A current USDA spokesperson said the agencies have been filling open positions throughout the pandemic and will “continue a robust hiring pace in 2021.”

“Both ERS and NIFA have engaged with stakeholders near and far to ensure a robust pool of talented individuals are aware of career opportunities available at those agencies,” the spokesperson said.

The pandemic and remote working showed that the location of the headquarters wasn’t as vital as full staffing. So rather than outright reversing the move and bringing all workers back to D.C., USDA employees and their allies are calling on Biden’s administration to give the agencies more flexibility to fill positions where they best fit and allow staff to continue working remotely when possible.

In a way, the economic downturn caused by the pandemic has aided the hiring process. ERS in particular has benefited from being able to scoop up academics looking for work. And employees said that expanded telework has demonstrated to department officials that the agencies can operate somewhat smoothly with staffers scattered across the country.

“In a very weird sort of way, the pandemic has made it easier for us to accomplish our tasks because we don’t have to commute anywhere,” said Tom Bewick, a program leader and acting vice president of NIFA’s union who used to spend hours each day traveling from his home in Maryland to D.C.

Grant money as a key to Biden agenda

NIFA, for the most part, has been able to continue getting grant money out the door to research universities, Bewick said. But staffing shortages have made it difficult to oversee how that money is spent, which is one of the main responsibilities of the agency.

The American Statistical Association and former ERS Administrators Susan Offutt and Katherine Smith Evans compiled a list of priorities for repairing the agency.

The paper calls for the new Agriculture secretary to reaffirm the independence of ERS, which the authors said has been “eroded by inappropriate intervention by offices within USDA” under the Trump administration.

The agency has run afoul of department leaders at times by publishing research that detailed how farmers had been affected by President Donald Trump’s trade wars and tax policies, among other sensitive issues.

Alongside the relocation, Perdue tried to realign ERS under the control of the chief economist, effectively bringing it closer to the secretary’s office, but he later backed down amid backlash against the proposal.

Even with USDA hiring new staff more quickly than expected, the loss of veteran researchers and the geographic split continues to take a toll on remaining ERS employees who have been forced to pick up the slack.

The decision by Perdue, which was later described by former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney as an experiment in shrinking the reach of the federal government, prompted ERS and NIFA employees to form unions for the first time in an attempt to extract some benefits from the department, such as having moving expenses covered.

“Most of us are still struggling,” said Laura Dodson, an economist at the agency and acting vice president of the ERS employees union. “New staffers cannot replace all the duties and responsibilities of the former staff. Many of us are overburdened and overworked, and unable to train new staff due to heavy workloads.”

Dodson said it makes sense to have a field office in Kansas City and to give employees more options to work remotely — but the agency should be centered squarely in the Beltway, where staff can easily collaborate with other research agencies and share their work with policymakers.

“The only path forward I can see is to allow us to hire back former staff in the District,” Dodson said.