DorobekInsider: USDA officials offer more details on management reorganization

Wednesday - 10/21/2009, 9:25am EDT

We told you about the major reorganization of the Agriculture Department’s management structure.

The plan — and you can read all the documents here — essentially creates an uber-USDA “Departmental Administration” that includes most of the management functions — procurement, IT, HR, finance and budget — all under one umbrella.

I haven’t been able to get somebody at USDA to talk about it officially yet — we’re still working on it. But USDA spokesman Justin DeJong provided me with this statement:

We take our responsibility to ensure we use hard-earned taxpayer dollars wisely, and these changes will help us to serve more people and in a more efficient and effective manner. By optimizing and streamlining the various operations, we plan to eliminate duplicate functions; improve quality of services and communications; and streamline processes and improve transparency to our customers. Ultimately, effective USDA management means effective results for taxpayers and the people USDA serves.

We began having discussions with employees and unions in the early months of the new administration. On June 18, all employees received a letter from Secretary Vilsack about the pending reorganization. This letter was followed by further discussions, meetings and additional outreach to employees and unions, in addition to the required notifications.

The CFO and CIO will continue to have the opportunity to report directly to the Secretary on core responsibilities as outlined in statute. There will be no Reduction in Force (RIF) associated with this reorganization. No employee will lose pay or grade.

I’m happy that USDA is talking about this in a more public, transparent way…. and I continue to hope that they will come on Federal News Radio 1500 AM to discuss the thinking behind the really massive change.

And before focusing on the specifics of the plan itself, I think the way that it is rolled out is important.

To be fair, DeLong and I had a discussion about the transparency of this initiative. And he correctly notes — both in our conversation and in the written statement — that Secretary Vilsack sent out a letter in June to employees and all of the documents about the reorganization are posted on the agency’s Intranet. But this specifically want not discussed in any kind of public way.

My point to him is that this is not just a USDA internal matter — it has broad ramifications about how USDA is run and, frankly, there are people who have ideas and thoughts outside of the agency. It seems to me, that is at the heart of the Obama transparency initiative — agencies should only keep information locked down if there is a reason for that information to be locked down. Frankly, I spoke to several people on Capitol Hill yesterday and they hadn’t heard of the reorganization. Using the Obama transparency and openness measures — transparency, participatory, and collaborative — it sure seems like business as usual.

I think USDA missed out on an opportunity to tap into the collective wisdom — and build support for the idea of a changed management structure. And management issues are ones that particularly touch the employee, so I certainly hope that USDA will not use this as a model for how they view openness and transparency. In the end, if transparency is only within your organization, it fails — and, in the end, it isn’t any different then what has been done in the past.

On the issue of the reorganization itself…

There are still a number of questions out there:

  • How does USDA envision this working?
  • Nobody disagrees that agencies need to spend money wisely. How does this reorganization spur that?
  • What spurred this kind of massive change?
  • What data demonstrates that a single organization works better then a diversified one? Or is the decision based on philosophy?
  • What will this mean for the agencies within USDA? Will they all be using this uber-management organization for procurement, HR, IT, budget and finance?
  • If the organization chart specifically shows that the CIO and CFO report to the UDSA manager, how does this comply with the CFO Act or the Clinger-Cohen Act — in letter or spirit?

Furthermore, Congress Daily spoke to Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan who said she would still have budget authority, which would seem to undercut this actual management organization from the very top.