The U.S. Department of Agriculture intends to relocate hundreds of employees outside Washington, D.C., as a means of cutting costs and improving services, but some employees at the impacted departments may be allowed to stay in the capital.
According to Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture Kristi Boswell, who spoke at a March 27 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, the relocation plans to keep 76 employees of the Economic Research Service and 20 employees from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in D.C.
Meanwhile the remaining 253 ERS employees and 315 NIFA employees would have their positions moved to a yet-to-be-determined new office location.
The agency's inspector general will review the proposed changes to the roughly 300-person Economic Research Service, said two Democratic House members.
“The relocation allows ERS and NIFA to be closer to the broad array of customers and stakeholders who live and work outside D.C., so that our teams can hear ground level upcoming issues and developing research needs,” said Boswell, adding that the move would ideally reduce the cost of living and travel times for those employees.
But some have argued that the move does little to help USDA services and a lot to inconvenience employees.
Experts who also spoke at the March 27 hearing said that farmers are not the main recipients of ERS and NIFA research, making the choice to move those employees closer to rural America “meaningless,” according to Katherine Smith Evans, a former administrator of the Economic Research Service.
“NIFA’s primary clientele are the science administrators in national agricultural research and the greater scientific community,” said former USDA Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Gale Buchanan, adding that the two departments should be “where the action is” in research policy, rather than agriculture itself.
The move has been placed on an aggressive timeline, with a site recommendation anticipated to be offered to the secretary of agriculture in late May.
“We know that this process is hard, and that we know that we are affecting real lives and we are affecting real families,” said Boswell, adding that the speedy process is designed to keep that limbo period for employees short.
The official review of various counties’ expressions of interest in being chosen as the new office location is being conducted by Ernst and Young, and Boswell said that no political officials are being allowed to review the expressions of interest at this time.
But some representatives said that they felt USDA was being unduly opaque about the selection process and the decision to move itself.
“Despite multiple requests for information and expressions of concern, USDA has continued to move full speed ahead, and at the moment there appear to be far more questions than there are answers,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga.
“I’m concerned that the method for rolling this proposal out and the lack of clear, transparent communication with ERS and NIFA employees has already done irreversible damage to the department’s reputation.”
Potential renovations in the South Building and George Washington Carver Center, which are already owned by USDA, offer the chance to house NIFA and ERS for a lower price than their current leases, while keeping employees at those departments in the same general location, according to Bishop.
Both Bishop and experts who spoke at the hearing worried that moving the two departments would also make it more difficult to attract skilled talent, if current employees decide they don’t want to move.