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Perdue announces USDA realignment

Among changes: Innovation Center established in rural development; FSA, NRCS, RMA will report to Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has realigned a number of offices within USDA. Perdue says the realignment will improve customer service and maximize efficiency.

“On my first day as secretary, I told our employees that I wanted USDA to be the most effective, most efficient, and best managed department in the federal government. These changes will move us further toward that goal,” Perdue said. “We are already providing our customers with great service, and our career professionals are among the best in the federal government, but we can be even better. This realignment represents further progress on the improvements to USDA we made earlier this year, and will help us better meet the needs of farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers, while providing increased accountability to American taxpayers.”

The realignments include:

Advancing Trade

In May, USDA created an Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs (TFAA). While reviewing options for improving coordination on trade and international activities, USDA determined that the Codex Alimentarius program (U.S. Codex Office), currently housed in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), will be moved to the newly created TFAA mission area.  The U.S. Codex Office is an interagency partnership which engages stakeholders in the development of international governmental and non-governmental food standards.  The focus of the Codex Office aligns better with the mission of TFAA. 

"While the move may seem inconsequential on the surface, this realignment will undermine the United States’ credibility in the international food policy arena, and represents yet another effort by the Trump Administration to emphasize trade goals at the expense of food safety," according to Brian Ronholm, a former USDA deputy under secretary of food safety, in an article in Food Safety News.

Codex Alimentarius is a United Nations standards-setting body working under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) that establishes food standards. Many countries incorporate Codex standards into their laws. 

The U.S. Codex Office is comprised of a small staff within FSIS that manages U.S. participation in Codex by engaging other federal agencies and external stakeholders in the development of  international governmental and non-governmental food standards.

"Historically, the United States has been a strong presence in Codex, providing leadership in maintaining the organization’s adherence to science," Ronholm wrote. "Aligning the U.S. Codex Office with trade goals within USDA will have a negative impact on this leadership status."

Driving Rural Development

The USDA reorganization announced in May created a new position of Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development (RD) and situated it to report directly to the secretary.

RD has spearheaded efforts to improve the rural economy through the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity.  There have been meetings in which participants held a wide-ranging dialogue, discussing – among other issues – access to broadband, community infrastructure, community mental and physical health, workforce training and veterans’ employment, agricultural research, regulatory reform, improved access to capital, and increased local control of decision-making.  Four working groups have been established to gather recommendations on issues regarding the quality of life in rural America; the rural workforce; innovation, technology, and data; and economic development. A report with concrete actions on statutes to be enacted or repealed; regulations to be promulgated, amended, or eliminated; and programs and policies to be implemented, streamlined, or discarded will be provided to President Trump in late October. 

In order to develop fresh, creative solutions to reinvigorate rural America, the new structures establish an Innovation Center within RD.  The RD Innovation Center will be tasked with evaluating the impacts of the business, housing, and utilities programs provided by USDA. RD will be continuously identifying best practices in economic development, measuring performance of programs, and promoting collaboration across agencies.

Concentrating Industry Engagement

The realignment announced in May reconstituted and renamed a mission area headed by the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC).  Under the newly-organized FPAC mission area, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the Risk Management Agency, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service were realigned to report to the renamed Under Secretary. 

Rather than have commodity procurement in multiple agencies of the USDA, the International Food Commodity Procurement program currently in the Farm Service Agency (FSA) will merge into the domestic Commodity Food Procurement program in the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).  This action will consolidate commodity procurement activities across the USDA and allow for greater efficiencies in the acquisition of commodities. 

Also, instead of having commodity grading and inspection in multiple USDA agencies, the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) will be merged into AMS. Currently, GIPSA and AMS both carry out grading activities and work to ensure fair trade practices.  Specific to fair trade practice work, the new structure will contain a program area composed of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act Program and the Packers and Stockyards Program, as well as some other regulatory activities AMS is currently directed to carry out.  In addition, this new program area will have the responsibility to carry out Warehouse Act functions currently being provided by FSA.  The grain inspection activities will become a separate program area in AMS.  These improvements will provide a unified USDA presence focused not on programs, but on customers and the services they are provided.

In addition, FPAC is undertaking a customer engagement review to better understand what is working and what needs improvement so that USDA can best support farmers and producers today and in the future.

"We strongly support this much-needed realignment of FGIS within AMS, which we believe will help the agency better fulfill its statutory obligation to provide reliable, accurate, timely, impartial and cost-effective services," said National Grain and Feed Association President Randy Gordon and North American Export Grain Association President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Martin. "Relocating FGIS within an agency that has a similar mission and function as a service agency is the foundation for its successful future, and we commend Secretary Perdue for recognizing this need and moving expeditiously to bring about this change."

NGFA and NAEGA also said the realignment provides the impetus for FGIS to improve its cross-agency interaction with other government departments that share roles in facilitating the marketing of U.S. agricultural products, such as USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is responsible for issuing phytosanitary certificates for U.S. grain export shipments.

"In concert with the appointment of capable, knowledgeable, responsible and accountable leadership at FGIS, this organizational realignment holds promise for greatly improving the agency's program delivery and reputation," Gordon and Martin said. "It also should promote and support domestic and export markets, thereby enhancing USDA's agricultural trade mission. Further, the relocation to AMS should help address problems over the last decade involving the overall expense and effectiveness of federally mandated FGIS official grain inspection services by eliminating programmatic redundancies, reducing administrative costs, and providing opportunities for interaction with AMS personnel with a similar mission and focus.

Reducing Redundancies

While creating the Farm Production and Conservation mission area, it became apparent that across USDA there are redundancies and inefficiencies in the mission support activities.  Presently some agencies maintain redundant administrative support functions, including human resources, information technology (IT), finance, procurement, and property management.  For example, there are 22 employees in the department that are identified as Chief Information Officers (CIOs).  Having such a large number of CIOs creates redundancies throughout the Department when it comes to leadership on IT activities and services and results in unnecessary layering of leadership and direction.  Therefore, mission support activities will be merged at the mission area level across USDA.  Through these mergers, the mission areas will not only increase operational efficiencies, but also maximize collaboration between agencies that serve similar customers.  This has happened in many of the support activities in mission areas already and is working well.

Focusing Nutrition Efforts 

In order to better serve the nutritional needs of USDA customers, the new blueprint calls for merging the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).  This makes sense because the two are closely intertwined and serve a similar mission. CNPP works to improve the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting dietary guidance that links scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers.  FNS seeks to end hunger and obesity through the administration of 15 federal nutrition assistance programs, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The agency will be headed by a career associate administrator.  Incorporating CNPP into FNS will improve administrative efficiencies and allow closer integration of the work of these two agencies. 

Engaging Customers

In an effort to create a consistent customer-focused outreach effort, the USDA will create an Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement by grouping the following offices together: the Office of Advocacy and Outreach; the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships staff; the Office of Tribal Relations; and the Military Veterans Liaison.  Each office will retain its own character and identity, and continue to communicate with its core constituency, but this realignment will ensure a more coordinated and consistent approach.  This will result in improved service and enhanced engagement with USDA’s customers.

Realigning Pest Management

The new alignment moves the Office of Pest Management Policy (OPMP) from the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to the Office of the Chief Economist.  OPMP coordinates the USDA role in the pesticide regulatory process and related interagency affairs.  Its focus does not coincide with the mission of ARS and can be better situated in the Office of the Chief Economist.

Source: USDA, NGFA

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