Department of Agriculture

Recommendations and Actions

USDA03: Reorganize the Department of Agriculture to Better Accomplish its Mission, Streamline its Field Structure, and Improve Service to its Customers


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for the operation of 250 programs meeting important national needs in areas such as farm income, nutrition, food safety, and conservation. In recent years, significant criticism of USDA has appeared in the popular media. This criticism has focused on the fragmentation of the department's headquarters and field organizations, as well as the size of the department and its budget relative to farmers. Although some of the criticism is justified, it represents an oversimplification of the issues. The focus of USDA has shifted dramatically since the 1930s. Nutrition programs now account for 60 percent of USDA's budget outlays, forestry programs are managed by 35 percent of the USDA staff, and rural economic development programs involve large investments in rural enterprises that extend well beyond farming. Less than 30 percent of the department's annual outlays fall within the agriculture function of the federal budget.

The headquarters of the department is not effectively organized at either the subcabinet or agency levels to carry out the diverse mission of USDA. The Secretary of Agriculture is responsible for 43 agencies managing 250 programs. There is duplication of authority and responsibility among subcabinet officers and agencies. These problems are most severe in areas such as farm services, environmental programs, and rural development. The challenge to the Secretary of Agriculture is to articulate a comprehensive mission structure that encompasses the various interests of the department and to reorganize the agencies to provide cohesive direction for the department's programs.

Secretary Espy has moved aggressively to address these problems and coordinated his efforts with those of the National Performance Review (NPR). This paper presents a set of joint recommendations on behalf of the Secretary and NPR.

At the field level, USDA's county structure is symptomatic of its organizational problems and is in need of major overhaul.(1) USDA county-based agencies operate over 12,000 offices serving 3,158 counties in the nation, either directly with federal employees or indirectly through financial support for nonfederal employees. The General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that closing the least efficient county offices would generate significant savings. GAO also recommended that additional criteria be developed to determine if a larger problem exists.(2)

USDA has undertaken a comprehensive approach to evaluate information regarding the various field installations of all its agencies.(3) The department reviewed county-based agencies--the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA)--as well as the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) against six criteria. This analysis was used to identify approximately 1,200 field offices as candidates for consolidation. Secretary Espy will make the department's state agency leadership responsible for ensuring that implementation of this analysis improves efficiency of offices and enhances customer service.

In addition to the county office structure there is an intermediate structure--state and area offices--that was established to provide direction and communication between the policy levels at headquarters and the service delivery units in the counties. This has evolved into an additional bureaucratic layer between policymakers and service providers. Non-county based agencies also have a wide variety of regional structures that add administrative layers. Current communication technologies obviate the need for many of these intermediate offices, and data exist to support consolidation of the field structures of agencies not based in counties.

Reducing the size of the field structure need not equate to a reduction in level of field service. USDA has been a leader in many applications of scientific advances and its research capacity is considered among the very best. The department will accelerate the development of technological applications to provide increased service to its customers.

The department's "Infoshare" project will bring fully integrated modern computer services to its county offices. The department's Food and Nutrition Service has been at the forefront of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) technology since its inception and pioneered the current EBT pilot projects to provide food stamp benefits. Similar initiatives can be identified elsewhere within USDA. Additionally, ASCS has pilot tested automatic teller machines to allow producers to enter information and examine their records.

The department also has made significant advances in the adaptation of new technology (Global Positioning Systems and Geographic Information Systems) into its ongoing programs in land and resource management.(4) These advances should allow more effective program delivery while reducing the number of staff that would otherwise be required to map and monitor farmland and the national forests.


1. USDA should begin immediately a multi-year approach to revising the department's structure to reflect its program responsibilities.

The overall effort should build on activities already underway and provide time to identify, pilot, and implement additional improvements.

2. The Secretary of Agriculture should submit legislation to implement the new organizational structure to enhance the delivery of USDA services.

At the headquarters level, the Secretary should propose a new mission-oriented structure designed to provide needed services in a more efficient and effective manner. The proposed structure would maintain the current number of under and assistant secretaries. However, the areas of responsibility would be modified to recognize changing needs in the department.

At headquarters, the new structure would recognize the farm income, exports, rural economic development, nutrition, food safety, and conservation mission areas of the department. The department would be divided into six key areas: Commodity Programs and Trade; Rural Development; Nutrition Programs; Conservation; Food Quality; and Research, Education, and Economics. As part of this process, the number of individual USDA agencies will be reduced from 43 to 30. Administrative services will be consolidated from 14 administrative support staffs to six administrative units.

At the field level, the new USDA plan would restructure and streamline the field level offices beginning with those currently operated by ASCS, FmHA, and SCS, to improve services to customers and reduce government expenditures. The new field structure would focus on service delivery through collocated USDA Service Centers. USDA customers and agencies would benefit from the consolidation of separate USDA agencies under one roof. This type of consolidation, referred to as "one-stop shopping," has proven to be a very effective way to deliver programs, as evidenced by the recent USDA response to the floods in the Midwest. Additionally, other USDA field structures should be reorganized consistent with the agency headquarters reorganization. This initial implementation would begin in fiscal year 1994 and lead to a fundamental restructuring of the department's headquarters and field programs and offices.

3. The USDA should review its regional, state, and area office structure; eliminate those elements no longer appropriate; and extend the restructuring to the "non-county based" agencies of the department.

For the U.S. Forest Service, this could mean reducing the number of regional offices and restructuring or combining national forests and ranger districts. In addition, the department should invest in the acquisition of new technology to replace the labor-intensive practices of the past. This should include broad-scale implementation of Geographic Information System and Global Positioning System technology to include acquisition of required data and systems for data sharing among the department's various agencies.


The primary purpose of these reorganization actions is to equip the USDA to serve the public better. Additionally, when fully implemented, these actions will produce significant budget savings.

Fiscal Impact

After the reorganization is fully implemented, total headquarters staffing will be reduced by about 8 percent, producing annual savings of $73 million. Additional headquarter economies include communications, publications, travel, and office space, which are expected to yield annual savings in the range of $40 million. Greater savings will also result from reorganizing field, area, and state offices.

 Budget Authority (BA) and Outlays (Dollars in Millions) 

Fiscal Year

1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 Total ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ BA -36.5 -160.6 -238.5 -351.0 -443.5 -443.5 -1,673.6

Out lay -35.9 -158.1 -231.9 -345.8 -436.9 -436.9 -1,645.5

Change in FTEs -1,296 -3,398 -4,375 -5,939 -7,503 -7,503 -7,503


1. See U.S. General Accounting Office, U.S. Department of Agriculture: Farm Agencies' Field Structure Needs Major Overhaul, GAO/RCED-91-9 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1991).

2. Ibid., pp. 30-32.

3. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Briefing of USDA/OMB Field Structure Review to the National Performance Review (Washington, D.C., April 29, 1993). (Briefing book.)

4. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Washington, D.C., July- August, 1992).

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