When I took over as Agriculture Secretary in early 2009, Americans across the country were tightening their belts and finding ways to keep their costs low to save their hard earned dollars as they weathered a national financial storm. During that difficult time, American farmers and ranchers rolled up their sleeves and got to work doing what they do best: adapting.
While the foundational tenets of America’s farms and ranches remain the same today as they have always been — embracing good ideas to feed and clothe a nation — the modern farming operation is anything but “business as usual.” Our farms and ranches use technology and innovation in new ways everyday to prepare, invent and adjust, making tough decisions and seeking out more opportunities to cut on-farm costs, build margins and manage their debt. As a result of their resolve American agriculture has never been more productive, never been more prosperous and never been more resilient than it is today.
In 2012, we launched our own modernization effort at USDA modeled on the driving ability of farmers to enhance their capacity through modernization and build their resilience with limited means. With USDA’s Blueprint for Stronger Service we mirrored the incredible ingenuity of the American farmer by challenging our team to use creativity and innovation to find ways to do a better job with the resources we had at our disposal already. Faced with a discretionary budget that has been reduced by nearly 10 percent since 2010, we have looked for ways to proactively improve and modernize the way we do business while avoiding unnecessary layoffs and disruption in the services that millions of Americans rely on.
To achieve this, we developed a three-pronged approach to meeting our administrative challenges. These steps have given us the tools to carry out our mission-critical work, while ensuring that USDA’s millions of customers across rural America receive stronger service than ever before. They are:
1. Signature Process Improvements
With the goal of making USDA work more efficiently for the American people, every USDA agency engaged in improvement projects to optimize processes, increase efficiency, reduce costs, accelerate schedules and strengthen accuracy and transparency.
2. Administrative Streamlining
We have delivered targeted, common-sense solutions to save taxpayer dollars by better managing our buildings and facilities, consolidating procurement to improve how we purchase the things we need and enhancing and streamlining our information technology structure.
3. Cultural Transformation
To ensure that USDA remains the best place to work and continues to attract the best and brightest rising talent to our halls, we have taken steps to restructure USDA’s workforce through targeted use of early retirement and voluntary separation authorities, increased use of telework and re-energized USDA’s workforce through internships and pathways programs.
Through these efforts combined, we are proud to have saved taxpayers $1.6 billion in recent years.
Blueprint’s strategy puts trust where it belongs, in the hardworking knowledgeable employees of USDA, unlocking creativity of the federal work force to bring forward stronger and more comprehensive solutions to the challenges facing our department.
Strengthening the Way We Deliver
The Blueprint for Stronger Service started by taking a realistic view of the core needs of American agriculture and laid out a plan for USDA to modernize and accelerate delivery of our services while improving customer experience. Since Blueprint’s launch, every agency at USDA, and many staff offices, have engaged in process improvement projects to optimize the way they do business. By turning to USDA’s agencies and directing them to find efficiencies related to the unique work they do, we’ve improved management processes and established more than $57 million in savings.
Through our Signature Process Improvements alone, our dedicated workforce has already helped us save our customers more than $13.4 million dollars, and more than 375,894 USDA staff hours annually. And you can see instances of these small measures adding up to big savings all across USDA through some of our projects from the last few years:
- USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has been a particular leader in streamlining procedures to make sure they work better for our customers. In just one of dozens of process improvements the agency has made under this Administration, their Center for Veterinary Biologics (CVB) created a process that enables the biologics industry to produce new and innovative veterinary products and gain approval for use in a more timely manner. This project improved the timeliness of final market authorization of veterinary biologics product licensing to the industry from 2.5 days to same day notification. The CVB has provided same day notification of over 241 billion doses of biologics, saving the industry approximately $100,000 per day due to inventory reduction and allowing expedited export shipments. In total, this is an estimated savings of almost $60,000,000 for predominately U.S. manufacturers of veterinary biologics in just over the last 2 years. As a result of their work, not only has the industry gotten increased return on their investment in biologic development, but U.S. agriculture also has access to better biologics.
- Process improvements also allowed USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) to reduce the amount of time producers must wait when adding land to their farm operations. By eliminating the requirement to submit added land and new crop practice/type requests for approval, the agency has saved a total of 6,456 USDA staff hours per year. Previous to these process improvements, producers waited an average of 27 days for a determination. The new process allows the insurance companies to make the determination and advise the producer on the impacts to their coverage immediately.
- Another streamlined process effort helped our Rural Housing Service to reengineer their mortgage loan application process transforming an outdated, cumbersome and labor-intensive loan application process into an automated and virtually paperless workflow. By improving the process for 140,000 loan applications annually, they achieved annual savings for lenders of $3.5 million and for reduced staff hours by 133,000, a financial benefit to USDA of approximately $4.8 million per year. The automation has enabled the agency to process more loans with fewer people, and has increased program flexibility and capacity, enabling more employees to focus on vital program areas, lender compliance and program oversight.
- USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service used a process improvement to better the application process for both the Food for Progress and McGovern-Dole Food Assistance Programs improving guidance, reducing redundancies and improving the clarity and customer outreach for applicants. Stakeholders reported a 17 percent reduction in the number of hours required to submit an application. 91 percent of the stakeholders responded favorably to the changes that were implemented, and 92 percent of the stakeholders rated customer service as either good or excellent.
- Our Natural Resource Conservation Service achieved an 85 percent reduction in the time to develop and award a grant (from 60 days to 9 days, on average) and an 80 percent improvement in integrity and accuracy thanks to process improvements. And USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) reduced clearance time of materials that dictate how the agency delivers services internally and programs externally from 18 days to 6 days on average, or 66 percent. As a result, FSA is able to implement and administer programs faster for their farmers and ranchers, saving approximately 5,910 staff hours annually, without sacrificing quality.
- Prior to process improvements at USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA), the 700 licensed inspectors who certify U.S. produced grain and other commodities had to consult an aging network of handbooks, directives and program notices to find Federal Grain Inspection Service policy and updates. Under this Administration, GIPSA eliminated the multiple points of reference by identifying a web-based central point for distribution. GIPSA also significantly improved the process for developing and updating policy by reducing the steps by 55 percent, saving enough staff hours annually to equal 10 full time employees — time that is now redirected to customer service and oversight.
- Lastly, the Economic Research Service modernized their system to process extramural cooperative agreements bringing their execution time down from 4–6 weeks to 5 business days. The new system is faster, transparent, paperless and reduces errors. The number of administrative staff involved in processing these agreements has been reduced by 2.5 full time employees which translates into an administrative savings of $210,000 per year. Additionally, customers have responded positively to the new electronic procedures that aid oversight by managers and provide a common budget office contact for external institutions.
More strategic resource management for the things we need
USDA has also saved significant tax dollars through better management of our buildings and facilities. By ending planned or on-going construction projects, and getting rid of property that’s underutilized or no longer necessary, we have saved $268.6 million. We’ve implemented energy savings practices and worked with utility companies to reduce expenditures by $6.5 million. And here in Washington, several USDA agencies have consolidated their locations from seven leased offices to a single facility, along with reducing leased space across the country, achieving more than $46.5 million in efficiencies.
USDA is a big Department with significant buying power. By taking better steps to buy goods and services at the Department level (as opposed to individual areas or agencies) through strategic sourcing, along with our efforts to centralize our purchasing contracts, USDA has achieved $186 million in efficiencies. We’ve improved our oversight of service contracts, including better acquisition management and data analysis, freeing up another $60 million in results. And we have put an end to the purchase of unnecessary promotional items. This will save taxpayers more than $1.8 million a year.
USDA will also achieve more than $135.5 million in efficiencies by updating the agreements we have for IT support and services, centralizing our data servers, consolidating cell phone services and ensuring that we only buy necessary IT equipment to get the job done
Lastly, we’ve cut back on travel to be sure that employees are only on the road when necessary to get mission-critical work done. These efforts have enabled USDA to avoid costs in excess of $575 million.
A more efficient and effective USDA workforce
The most productive and efficient modern workforce is one that is happy and satisfied. To that end, through USDA’s Cultural Transformation we have taken steps to ensure each and every individual at the Department is afforded equal opportunity for professional growth and the support and services they need to thrive in their careers at USDA.
USDA restructured its workforce through targeted use of Early Retirement and Voluntary Separation authorities. Through these efforts, USDA achieved more than $142.8 million in savings.
Through the increase of telework, the Department has also realized $18 million of cost avoidance in transit subsidies to employees. By having employees work from home more often, we are recognizing not only increased productivity, but also greater operating efficiencies and cost reductions.
We also know that building a diverse bench for the future does not just make practical sense, it makes economic sense. Every leading publication from Forbes to the Harvard Business Review touts the profitability of a workforce that includes employees with both inherent and acquired diversity. Cultural Transformation aims to create a high performing organization through these values of diversity, opportunity and inclusion. The unique perspectives these employees offer strengthen our business decisions, enrich our workplace, stretch our innovation and allow us to better adapt to the needs of the consumers and clients we serve.
We made it a priority to utilize hiring flexibilities and develop a model Pathways intern-to-career program working closely with the Office of Personnel Management and promoted via innovative on-campus hiring events.
We worked with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other organizations to expand the number of summer youth employment opportunities available, including opportunities in USDA offices across the country.
As a result of these actions, over the past eight years, we’ve seen diversity increase from our lowest to our highest ranks, with 27 percent of our workforce comprised of minority employees. In fact, our Senior Executive Service now exceeds the government-wide workforce in 9 out of 10 diversity categories. The percentage of minorities in these ranks is up by 88% and percent of women has increased by 38% since the Cultural Transformation initiative began. That has earned us recognition as one of the most diverse groups of executives in the entire federal government.
At the same time, our hiring managers have led the charge in hiring returning veterans who have proudly served our country. Since 2011, approximately 30% of all new permanent hires are former service men and women.
In 2012, we embarked on Blueprint for Stronger Service to proactively adjust to a challenging budgetary climate in Washington. We found ways to better manage our processes without cutting services or support for people and communities in rural areas who were just beginning a slow recovery from the depths of the Great Recession. When I launched Blueprint, I asked the workforce of USDA to step up as they always have, and as they always will. True to form, their endless creativity, innovation and dedication to the American people has not only allowed us to cut costs and save taxpayer dollars, but also to strengthen our service and modernize our operations for the people we serve.
It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve the good people of the United States as Agriculture Secretary and to have been entrusted with the incredible privilege of leading the best federal workforce there is. Thank you.