Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released an independently produced report that provides a Civil Rights Assessment of USDA's field-based program delivery and makes recommendations intended to ensure that all Americans have fair and equal access to USDA programs.
"From the day I took office as Secretary, I made it a department-wide priority to ensure that all eligible Americans receive equal access to USDA programs, and this report provides a roadmap that will help us continue moving forward in this effort," Vilsack said. "USDA employees and our partners throughout the country are to be commended for the commitment being made to diversity, inclusion, and accessibility and that they realize our work must continue."
The Civil Rights Assessment report was promised in Secretary Vilsack's April 2009 memorandum to employees that detailed an aggressive plan to promote equal access and opportunity at the department. The report makes department-wide recommendations that will help USDA improve service delivery to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and also suggests agency-specific changes to enhance program delivery and outreach to promote diversity, inclusion and accessibility.
A significant number of the recommendations included in the report already have been or currently are being integrated into USDA operations. An internal working group chaired by Secretary Vilsack has been established to implement many of the recommendations within the framework of cultural transformation. While many recommendations can be implemented administratively, some of the recommendations will require policy or statutory changes, and others will need to be considered as part of the 2012 Farm Bill deliberations.
The recommendations include adoption of a new workforce analysis process, customer service analysis, and increased measurement of objectives through managerial employee performance plans. The report also outlines some department successes, including socially disadvantaged group participation in some USDA housing loan programs. At the same time the report provides recommendations designed to improve outreach, documentation of public contact and streamline program application processes for the program.
To develop the various recommendations within the report, Jackson Lewis LLP Corporate Diversity Counseling Group, surveyed Washington, D.C. and field office staff in four agencies: The Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency.
A sampling of recommendations that have been or are currently being implemented into USDA operations include:
- The Secretary will continue to emphasize to the entire workforce rigorous enforcement of a comprehensive USDA "Zero Tolerance" Policy, clearly prohibiting all forms of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, along with related standards of conduct, and including mandatory discipline for violations regarding both employment and program delivery.
- USDA will hold all managers accountable for utilizing a diverse pool of applicants for vacancies/promotions, with limited exceptions to be approved/denied by the USDA Chief Diversity Officer, who will direct follow-up actions to remedy the reasons for exceptions, where such exceptions are temporarily approved.
- Farm Service Agency employees will be required to thoroughly explain to applicants the reasons when they deny loan or program applications and what the applicant can do to improve chances of securing approval in subsequent applications.
- Farm Service Agency employees involved in the lending and/or outreach processes will learn what assistance they can and cannot provide to customers and potential customers in connection with completing their applications to avoid unequal treatment that could be construed by any customer or potential customer as discriminatory.
- Rural Development will seek organizations such as community based organizations to enhance the success of existing program dollars that are not reaching socially disadvantaged communities, and the agency will 1) identify Rural Development programs appropriate for their constituents; 2) identify eligible participants; 3) educate potential applicants to build capacity; 4) assist with the application process; and 5) work with borrowers to increase the likelihood of success after funding is provided.
- Rural Development will utilize flex-time policies and encourage the use of evening/weekend hours to ensure greater customer/potential customer access to programs.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service will create a consistent protocol in every field office for tracking applications, informing applicants of the status of their application in writing on a regular basis, providing customers with reasons as to why they are ineligible for programs or not funded, and providing guidance for future applications.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service will set consistent training goals at the national level for and tailored training should take place at the local level.
- Risk Management Agency will incorporate explicit, comprehensive, measurable outreach requirements into regulations and the Standard Reinsurance Agreement, and rigorously enforce the requirements.
- Risk Management Agency will utilize the offices of other USDA agencies to promote and distribute informational materials about programs and services.
Under Secretary Vilsack's leadership, USDA is addressing civil rights complaints that go back decades to resolve allegations of past discrimination and usher in "a new era of civil rights" for the Department. In February 2010, the Secretary announced the Pigford II settlement with African American farmers, and in October 2010, he announced the Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers. In February 2011, Secretary Vilsack announced the establishment of a process to resolve the claims of Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers. An overview of Secretary Vilsack's comprehensive efforts is available here.