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Trump’s USDA relocated research agencies despite warnings of high staff attrition

In 2019, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the government would save $300 million over 15 years by moving two research agencies to Kansas City from the District of Columbia. However, congressional auditors now say USDA’s selection process was flawed and disregarded estimates that up to 75% of employees would quit rather than move.

The Government Accountability Office said the USDA emphasized cost savings when it selected Kansas City as the new home of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Savings were one of three reasons given for relocation of the agencies, part of a Trump era campaign to move agency headquarters out of Washington.

“We found that USDA overlooked key evidence, e.g., it didn’t factor in potential costs related to the attrition of staff or the disruption of agencies’ activities due to the relocation,” said the GAO. “As a result, USDA cannot be sure it made the best choice to meet its objectives.”

Perdue’s successor, Tom Vilsack, said a year ago the ERS and NIFA would stay in Kansas City, despite the turmoil created by the move. “What we’re trying to do is limit the level of disruption” and rebuild the workforce, with hundreds of jobs were vacant in the agencies, he said. The agencies employed about 700 workers and moved around 450 of the positions to Kansas City.

Hundreds of employees, some of them experts in their fields, quit work at USDA when told to move halfway across the country.

USDA officials told the GAO that although they expected some employees would resign, their estimates of cost savings assumed the agencies would remain at full staff. “USDA officials told us they did not conduct any surveys to assess the extent to which ERS and NIFA employees would stay or leave the agency based on where they were relocated.”

But “in pre-relocation briefing documents, ERS employees estimated employee attrition rates between 65 and 75%. However, USDA officials told us that USDA excluded attrition-related costs from their estimates of taxpayer savings because they assumed employee attrition rates would be about the same for all four alternative locations,” said the GAO.

Finalists in the competition for the agencies were Kansas City, Indianapolis, West Lafayette, Indiana, and Research Triangle, North Carolina.

Besides saving money, the USDA said relocation would make it easier to recruit employees accustomed to the lower costs of living in college towns and it would put USDA staff workers closer to taxpayers. Officials said the lower costs of office space and staff salaries would save $300 million over 15 years.

However, USDA’s emphasis on saving money, by focusing on cities with lower costs of living and lots of office space, “may have limited its ability to achieve the relocation objective of attracting and retaining highly qualified staff,” said the GAO. As an example, it said the USDA excluded five cities that performed well on workforce characteristics because of higher living costs. The Washington area “performed the same of better than Kansas City … on each of these three characteristics,” it said. The USDA could have considered exurban sites within commuting distance of the National Capital Region if it had not disqualified Washington, it said.

The GAO report is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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