DorobekInsider: USDA officials offer more details on management reorganization

We told you about the major reorganization of the Agriculture Department’s management structure.

The plan — and you can read all the documents here — essentially creates an uber-USDA “Departmental Administration” that includes most of the management functions — procurement, IT, HR, finance and budget — all under one umbrella.

I haven’t been able to get somebody at USDA to talk about it officially yet — we’re still working on it. But USDA spokesman Justin DeJong provided me with this statement:

We take our responsibility to ensure we use hard-earned taxpayer dollars wisely, and these changes will help us to serve more people and in a more efficient and effective manner. By optimizing and streamlining the various operations, we plan to eliminate duplicate functions; improve quality of services and communications; and streamline processes and improve transparency to our customers. Ultimately, effective USDA management means effective results for taxpayers and the people USDA serves.


We began having discussions with employees and unions in the early months of the new administration. On June 18, all employees received a letter from Secretary Vilsack about the pending reorganization. This letter was followed by further discussions, meetings and additional outreach to employees and unions, in addition to the required notifications.

The CFO and CIO will continue to have the opportunity to report directly to the Secretary on core responsibilities as outlined in statute. There will be no Reduction in Force (RIF) associated with this reorganization. No employee will lose pay or grade.

I’m happy that USDA is talking about this in a more public, transparent way…. and I continue to hope that they will come on Federal News Radio 1500 AM to discuss the thinking behind the really massive change.

And before focusing on the specifics of the plan itself, I think the way that it is rolled out is important.

To be fair, DeLong and I had a discussion about the transparency of this initiative. And he correctly notes — both in our conversation and in the written statement — that Secretary Vilsack sent out a letter in June to employees and all of the documents about the reorganization are posted on the agency’s Intranet. But this specifically want not discussed in any kind of public way.

My point to him is that this is not just a USDA internal matter — it has broad ramifications about how USDA is run and, frankly, there are people who have ideas and thoughts outside of the agency. It seems to me, that is at the heart of the Obama transparency initiative — agencies should only keep information locked down if there is a reason for that information to be locked down. Frankly, I spoke to several people on Capitol Hill yesterday and they hadn’t heard of the reorganization. Using the Obama transparency and openness measures — transparency, participatory, and collaborative — it sure seems like business as usual.

I think USDA missed out on an opportunity to tap into the collective wisdom — and build support for the idea of a changed management structure. And management issues are ones that particularly touch the employee, so I certainly hope that USDA will not use this as a model for how they view openness and transparency. In the end, if transparency is only within your organization, it fails — and, in the end, it isn’t any different then what has been done in the past.

On the issue of the reorganization itself…

There are still a number of questions out there:

  • How does USDA envision this working?
  • Nobody disagrees that agencies need to spend money wisely. How does this reorganization spur that?
  • What spurred this kind of massive change?
  • What data demonstrates that a single organization works better then a diversified one? Or is the decision based on philosophy?
  • What will this mean for the agencies within USDA? Will they all be using this uber-management organization for procurement, HR, IT, budget and finance?
  • If the organization chart specifically shows that the CIO and CFO report to the UDSA manager, how does this comply with the CFO Act or the Clinger-Cohen Act — in letter or spirit?

Furthermore, Congress Daily spoke to Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan who said she would still have budget authority, which would seem to undercut this actual management organization from the very top.

And then there are questions about the early retirements, which I understand are more complex to address.

In the end, nobody disagrees with the need to spend money wisely… and most everybody agrees that the head of an agency gets to decide how to run their organization — and different management styles work for different people. But leadership and management necessitates that people know where they are going — and why.

My concern is that USDA seems to have missed an opportunity. We have all seen many previous management overhauls that were conducted just the way this one has been so far — largely behind closed doors with, frankly, token efforts to make information available. Most of them go on to fail because they didn’t convince people that it was the right direction. They didn’t see questions as opportunities to improve the plan.

I don’t think anybody disagrees with the plan on the face of it. But buzz I keep hearing is deep concern about the role of the CIO and CFO… and why the determination was made.

Again, as I have re-read this post, it sounds harsh. I don’t mean it to be — and we look forward to getting more information.

Meanwhile, here is Congress Daily had report:

Deputy secretary asserts control over Agriculture budget
By Jerry Hagstrom
October 19, 2009

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan is planning to continue running the USDA budget, despite an organizational revamp that has placed the budget office under Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed….

“I will be running the budget process at USDA,” Merrigan told CongressDaily on Friday, adding that she had presented USDA’s fiscal 2011 budget to the Office of Management and Budget and will make the presentations of future budgets.

The deputy Agriculture secretary has traditionally been in charge of developing the budget and received reports from the budget officer. But since the reorganization, which went into effect Oct. 1, farm lobbyists have worried that if an official below the level of deputy secretary made the presentations, USDA would be at a disadvantage.

Read the full story here.