U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Recommendations and Options Available to the New Administration and Congress to Address Long-Standing Civil Rights Issues

GAO-09-650T: Published: Apr 29, 2009. Publicly Released: Apr 29, 2009.

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For decades, there have been allegations of discrimination in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and workforce. Reports and congressional testimony by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a former Secretary of Agriculture, USDA's Office of Inspector General, GAO, and others have described weaknesses in USDA's programs--in particular, in resolving complaints of discrimination and in providing minorities access to programs. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 authorized the creation of the position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (ASCR), giving USDA an executive that could provide leadership for resolving these long-standing problems. This testimony focuses on USDA's efforts to (1) resolve discrimination complaints, (2) report on minority participation in USDA programs, and (3) strategically plan its efforts. This testimony is based on new and prior work, including analysis of ASCR's strategic plan; discrimination complaint management; and about 120 interviews with officials of USDA and other federal agencies, as well as 20 USDA stakeholder groups. USDA officials reviewed the facts upon which this statement is based, and we incorporated their additions and clarifications as appropriate. GAO plans a future report with recommendations.

ASCR's difficulties in resolving discrimination complaints persist--ASCR has not achieved its goal of preventing future backlogs of complaints. At a basic level, the credibility of USDA's efforts has been and continues to be undermined by ASCR's faulty reporting of data on discrimination complaints and disparities in ASCR's data. Even such basic information as the number of complaints is subject to wide variation in ASCR's reports to the public and the Congress. Moreover, ASCR's public claim in July 2007 that it had successfully reduced a backlog of about 690 discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2004 and held its caseload to manageable levels, drew a questionable portrait of progress. By July 2007, ASCR officials were well aware they had not succeeded in preventing future backlogs--they had another backlog on hand, and this time the backlog had surged to an even higher level of 885 complaints. In fact, ASCR officials were in the midst of planning to hire additional attorneys to address that backlog of complaints including some ASCR was holding dating from the early 2000s that it had not resolved. In addition, some steps ASCR had taken may have actually been counter-productive and affected the quality of its work. For example, an ASCR official stated that some employees' complaints had been addressed without resolving basic questions of fact, raising concerns about the integrity of the practice. Importantly, ASCR does not have a plan to correct these many problems. USDA has published three annual reports--for fiscal years 2003, 2004, and 2005--on the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, as required by law. USDA's reports are intended to reveal the gains or losses that these farmers have experienced in their participation in USDA programs. However, USDA considers the data it has reported to be unreliable because they are based on USDA employees' visual observations about participant's race and ethnicity, which may or may not be correct, especially for ethnicity. USDA needs the approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to collect more reliable data. ASCR started to seek OMB's approval in 2004, but as of May 2008 had not followed through to obtain approval. ASCR staff will meet again on this matter in May 2008. GAO found that ASCR's strategic planning is limited and does not address key steps needed to achieve the Office's mission of ensuring USDA provides fair and equitable services to all customers and upholds the civil rights of its employees. For example, a key step in strategic planning is to discuss the perspectives of stakeholders. ASCR's strategic planning does not address the diversity of USDA's field staff even though ASCR's stakeholders told GAO that such diversity would facilitate interaction with minority and underserved farmers. Also, ASCR could better measure performance to gauge its progress in achieving its mission. For example, it counts the number of participants in training workshops as part of its outreach efforts rather than access to farm program benefits and services. Finally, ASCR's strategic planning does not link levels of funding with anticipated results or discuss the potential for using performance information for identifying USDA's performance gaps.

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