Predictions that relocating the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture would result in a brain drain at the agency appear to be coming true, as numbers released this week by the agency show a majority of employees choosing not to move with their jobs.
“ERS reports there are 72 acceptances and 99 declinations, the latter of which includes employees who declined to provide a response. NIFA reports there are 73 acceptances and 151 declinations, the latter of which includes employees who declined to provide a response,” a USDA spokesperson said.
Those numbers mean that 58 percent of employees at ERS and 67 percent of those at NIFA that were asked to move would plan to leave the agency, rather than relocate from their current posts in Washington, D.C.,to the planned Kansas City office.
Research organizations and federal employee unions warned USDA officials and members of Congress prior to the agency’s final decision on the move that a relocation would likely result in the agency losing many highly skilled researchers, as most would not want to transplant themselves and their families halfway across the country.
Those experts also called into question the choice to move those specific agencies out of Washington.
The agency’s stated rationale for relocation was that it would bring USDA officials closer to the farmers they serve, while cutting costs for the agency. But ERS and NIFA employees do not largely interface with the farming community to the degree that other parts of the agency do.
Experts also noted that ERS and NIFA research was most often valuable to policymakers and legislators, whom the agency would have a harder time interfacing with if the offices were moved out of the capital.
“Given all the employees who have resigned in recent months in light of this ill-advised relocation, plus those who say they will not relocate, USDA is likely to retain less than 10 percent of the total workforce at these two agencies once all is said and done,” J. David Cox Sr., National President of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees at NIFA and ERS, said in a statement.
“The agency has admitted it is planning to rely on more expensive contractors to replace the work now performed by federal employees. Instead of saving money, relocating these two USDA agencies from D.C. to Kansas City will be extremely costly to the American taxpayer because the administration has outrageously overestimated the cost of keeping the agencies in the DC area. In addition to the direct costs of the relocation, the resulting brain drain from this massive loss of talent will severely damage NIFA and ERS, and it will take years to rebuild the highly specialized workforce at these agencies.”
Though employees had until Monday of this week to say whether they would move with the agency or not, the current responses are not the final say in how many employees stay with the agency.
“We expect these numbers may fluctuate until Sept. 30, the report date to the Kansas City region for relocating employees, as employees are free to change their status until that date,” the spokesperson said.
“These anticipated ranges were taken into account in the Department’s long-term strategy, which includes both efforts to ensure separating employees have the resources they need as well as efforts to implement an aggressive hiring strategy to maintain the continuity of ERS and NIFA’s work.”
The planned USDA move is not the only Trump administration effort to push federal agencies out of the capital and into other parts of the country. The Bureau of Land Management in the Department of the Interior is also slated to move west to Colorado to cut costs and bring the agency closer to citizens.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.