Department of Agriculture

Recommendations and Actions

Executive Summary

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the fourth largest agency in the federal government. As a private enterprise, the department would rank ahead of IBM and just behind Ford Motor Company.

Most of the department's 110,000 employees work outside Washington, D.C., in regional, state, or county offices. However, the USDA "family" extends beyond its federal work force and includes 31,000 county extension agents in 3,500 offices, supported in part with federal funds, as well as 273,000 volunteers and 21,900 additional state and county employees.

In 1862, President Lincoln created USDA to develop the best seeds and send information to farmers. While the number of farms and farmers has declined in this century, USDA's mission has grown and become more complex. During the Great Depression, USDA's responsibilities were expanded to stabilize farm income; to conserve soil, water, and other natural resources; and to ensure the availability and quality of food and fiber products. During the 1960s, USDA was assigned responsibility for food and nutrition programs to ensure that the most needy would not go hungry. These additional responsibilities spawned new agencies, which were often added to the existing structure, rather than integrated with it. Today, USDA continues to be organized along the lines established in the 1930s--a localized presence for addressing a range of national problems and for delivering services to farmers and other rural citizens.

The National Performance Review's (NPR) recommendations for USDA reflect the four reinvention principles. USDA can do much to improve its services at less cost to the taxpayer, by eliminating obsolete programs and restructuring others.

NPR also supports the department's effort to streamline its field operations, especially county level offices. By defining and articulating its broader mission, especially its roles in rural economic development, natural resource conservation, and food safety and nutrition, and by organizing its program agencies, USDA will serve all its customers better, including America's farmers.

USDA has an opportunity to simplify environmental regulations for farm land management, and NPR recommends consolidating competing requirements into a single comprehensive plan for each farm. Additionally, NPR recommends redirecting funds from an ineffective training program for food stamp recipients and empowering recipients to participate in programs with proven results.

USDA can replace cumbersome administrative procedures with more efficient market incentives. The Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) can be harnessed to the marketplace to stretch the taxpayer's dollar by increasing competition among infant formula vendors and manufacturers of other items in the WIC food package. Finally, NPR recommends that USDA use Electronic Benefits Transfer technology as the primary means of distributing food stamp benefits.

A report on the status of USDA internal reinvention efforts is also provided, including a summary of future steps to be taken. If accepted, the recommendations would reduce the deficit by over $2.6 billion in six years, improve the structure of the department and the ability of its workforce to meet contemporary requirements, and improve services to the primary recipients of USDA programs.

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