Trump administration agency relocations led to brain drain, hurt diversity, GAO finds

 

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The Trump administration’s effort to “drain the swamp” by moving agencies from their Washington headquarters has proved to be a lesson in mismanagement.

When Sonny Perdue, then secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced in 2019 the move of two agencies to the Kansas City region, he bragged about “a rigorous site selection process” that would lead to “attracting highly-qualified staff” in the new location.

Perdue was wrong on both counts.

A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) details lasting problems with the troubled relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Perdue’s “rigorous” process excluded estimated employee attrition rates from the department’s “site-selection decision-making,” GAO said, and “limited the ability of USDA leadership to ensure that it was making an appropriately informed decision on relocating.”

Instead of attracting employees as Perdue promised, the move quickly decimated the workforce, trashed employee morale, shunned employee input and slashed the number of Black employees at the agencies. Productivity temporarily also dropped sharply, but that metric and workforce size have largely recovered, at least in numbers.

Yet the Trump administration relocations, USDA press secretary Marissa Perry said Wednesday, “resulted in a significant loss of institutional knowledge, talent, and diversity on staff that will take time and intentionality to fully rebuild.”

USDA officials told GAO auditors the relocation decision, which President Biden has not reversed, “was the sole decision of the Secretary.” Perdue, now chancellor of the University System of Georgia, and its media office did not respond to questions submitted by email.

This was not the first GAO study to find weaknesses in the rigorous process Perdue professed. In April, GAO found USDA’s “economic analysis did not fully align” with stated relocation objectives regarding improved staffing, service and costs, as it “omitted critical costs and economic effects from its analysis of taxpayer savings.”

GAO is not the only watchdog to criticize the process. USDA’s inspector general said in 2019 that the department obligated money to pay a contractor for services related to the move without first getting required congressional approval.

The new GAO audit found the two agencies “experienced substantial loss of staff,” including some in key positions, “as well as their institutional knowledge and critical expertise” after the relocation. In July 2020, each had about 150 permanent full-time employees, fewer than half the number in 2016. As of June 2022, both agencies had about 300 staffers.

As a result, the agencies’ now have a workforce of “mostly recent hires with significantly less experience” than previous employees, the report said. By the end of fiscal 2021, about two-thirds of Economic Research Service staffers and 79 percent of National Institute of Food and Agriculture employees had two years or less with the agencies. Before relocation, more than 80 percent of the employees in both agencies had over two years experience at their respective agencies. “The Secretary’s decision not to follow the directives” in department reorganization regulations, GAO added, “meant that USDA was more vulnerable to the workforce turnover and disruptions in productivity caused by relocating” the agencies.

The relocations sharply cut African American employment at the agencies. Between fiscal 2018 and 2021, the percentage of Black employees was cut by more than half in both agencies, while the proportion of White staffers increased significantly.

While both agencies “partially followed” best workplace reorganization practices, GAO found “they generally did not follow leading practices for diversity management before and after the relocation.” Reflecting the Trump administration’s hostility toward diversity, equity and inclusion policies, “the agencies did not have formal diversity plans or strategies in place.”

Productivity also took a heavy hit, albeit temporarily. The number of journal articles by research service writers fell from fiscal 2018 through 2020 by more than half, from 159 to 74. The institute needed 30 days more to fund competitive grants in fiscal 2019 than it did the previous year. “This slower processing time coincided with the loss of staff,” GAO said. No payments were made to National Institute grantees by March 31, 2020, a sharp contrast to previous years, when between one-third and 100 percent of grants were paid by that point. Seven of eight budget staffers left the agency in fiscal 2019.

Although Perdue met with employees “to notify” them about the relocation, USDA did little, if anything, to fully involve employees — or Congress — during the planning process, according to GAO, adding, “USDA did not engage employees to gain their buy-in or acceptance prior to relocating — in contrast to leading practices.”

The lack of employee engagement was reflected by steep drops for the agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, which are based on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The Economic Research Service’s Best Places’ score, an estimate of staff morale, fell from 67 in 2018 to 37 in 2019, and the National Institute’s slumped from 45 to 20.

Eschewing more employee involvement was a decision, not an oversight.

“According to USDA officials, USDA leadership told ERS and NIFA managers not to collect employee input as they developed the relocation,” GAO reported, “and that leadership would not consider recommendations from the agencies’ employee advisory groups on the relocation or site selection.”

During the Trump administration, the Interior Department also moved an agency headquarters west and received similarly negative reviews. In July 2019, Interior announced the Bureau of Land Management headquarters would move to Grand Junction, Colo. In March 2020, a GAO headline declared, “The agency’s reorganization efforts did not substantially address key practices for effective reforms.” Interior is reestablishing the Bureau of Land Management’s main office in D.C.

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who requested the new GAO report, said it “confirms that the disastrous relocation of two USDA research agencies forced experienced federal workers out of their jobs, leading to a brain drain of expertise and crippling the ability of these agencies to fulfill their missions. The previous administration’s thinly-veiled effort to gut the agencies and politicize their essential work was — unfortunately — successful.

“I’ve made it a priority to shine a light on the detrimental consequences of this haphazard relocation process,” she added, “and to ensure an administration can never again undermine the nonpartisan work of civil servants in this way.”

Nonetheless, Republican efforts to move agencies outside of D.C. continue. Legislation proposed by Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) would facilitate federal office relocations.

They call it the SWAMP Act.

Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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