The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been establishing business centers to consolidate administrative services across the agency for over two decades, but according to a Feb. 19 report issued by the Government Accountability Office, the agency has not used the data those centers have produced to determine how effective the program actually is.
Business centers are designed to place all of an agency mission area’s administrative services — such as IT, human resources, procurement, financial management and property management — in one office to improve efficiency and collaboration.
Though USDA has been establishing business centers since 1995, the agency placed an increased focus and dedication on creating and refining business centers in all eight of its mission areas in 2017, under a memorandum issued by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
The White House Office of American Innovation announced a partnership with GSA and the Department of Agriculture to pilot a Centers of Excellence program that draws on the best talent in the public sector and industry.
“According to USDA’s deputy assistant secretary for administration, the department regularly reviews data on administrative services, including services provided by the business centers. However, the department does not use these or other data to assess the effectiveness and impact of its business centers and as of November 2019 did not plan to do so,” the report said.
“Beginning in 2018, USDA created an online monitoring system to compile data from mission areas on the status of their administrative services. However, the department has not used dashboards or associated metrics to assess the effectiveness and impact of the business centers. Specifically, the department has not assessed the impact that the business centers have had on USDA’s customer service; human resources, including hiring; and overall functionality.”
GAO found that the effectiveness of the business centers was potentially hampered by upheaval at the agency, both in terms of understaffing and employee confusion about the differences in work processes within recently-established centers.
Union officials told GAO that employees have experienced confusion, frustration and anxiety about changes to their jobs, which has impacted the delivery of services they are meant to provide.
“Our prior work has shown that a key practice to consider during agency reform efforts is the establishment of clear outcome-oriented goals and performance measures to assess the reform’s effectiveness and impact,” the report said.
GAO recommended that the secretary of agriculture should direct the Departmental Administration office to work with the different mission areas to develop measurable goals for the business centers and use the available data to assess their performance against those goals. USDA agreed with the recommendation.