As part of his speech before the American Farm Bureau Federation today in Oahu, Hawaii, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack outlined a number of changes aimed at reducing costs for the agency. The plan, called "Blueprint for Stronger Service" will involve closing and consolidating offices, streamlining services, all with an aim toward reducing costs while boosting efficiency.
He explained that budget cutting has already trimmed budgets across different parts of USDA from 9 to 18%, and an aging workforce meant more retirements. Vilsack says the agency put together an early out program, just part of a range of tactics the department will engage in over the next few months to both streamline services and cut costs.
Perhaps the most local impact will be the closing of 131 Farm Service Agency offices across the country, and of those 35 offices had no employees. "That meant that someone would go into that office but was not there all the time," Vilsack says. "The work will be transferred…it will be done in another place. We won't sacrifice the quality of the work we do. And the farmer will work with the same person as before, but perhaps will have to drive farther."
This streamlining effort was, in part, laid out in the 2008 Farm Bill where Congress outlined some parameters for closing offices. That includes offices with one, two and no employees - the no-employee office is a space that's got technology, services and a lease. Consolidation on this order will save money.
The entire USDA team had input into the "blueprint" developing 379 recommendations and 133 are already at work. Today's announcement will add another 27 more ideas put into action under the program.
In addition to office closings, the agency will tackle other operational issues. For example, Vilsack pointed out that USDA operates under 700 different cellular telephone contracts. That will be reduced to 10. "We'll be able to leverage our purchasing power and with 10 instead of 700 we should get a better price," he notes.
For farmers, who are masters of cost cutting, these ideas may appear as common sense. However, moving a 100,000-employee "company" isn't easy when you have to report to Congress too. However, Vilsack notes Congress is on board and key committee members were informed about today's announcement.
Other agencies impacted including the Foreign Agriculture Service where five foreign offices will be closed; Rural Development will see 43 sub-state offices closed in 17 states; NRCS will close 24 soil survey operations in 21 states; the Food Safety Inspection Service will close five offices; and the Agricultural Research Service will close 12 programs.
Those counties with offices that are closing will hold hearings as part of the process. And Vilsack notes that none of the leaseholders were informed in advance, but he didn't anticipate any problems closing these offices. "These meetings will be in a little different context after a year of talking about getting our fiscal house in order," he notes. "We have to spend less money and there are only so many easy pickings."