As the former Administrator of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (2008 – 2014) who presided over of a large restructuring and reorganization of a statistical agency, I would like to make several comments relevant to Secretary Purdue’s plans to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The first comment relates to the manner in which the move has been planned and discussed with the management of the agency and the employees. There has been no attempt to involve them in the rationale for the move or the implications of the move to the program and activities of the agencies.
Because the planned move requires relocation of the agencies, this impacts not only the work agenda and its structure (how the work is done, who are the managers, which employees have the relevant skills, etc.) but also the family and individual situations of each of the employees. Thus, the morale of the agencies. In the best of circumstances, it is difficult to recruit economists, computer scientists, statisticians, project managers; this situation will make it nearly impossible. It will be years before ERS will regain its stature as an agricultural research agency. The large restructuring and relocations of the organization that I oversaw was done with employee input and involvement in choices. The end result was that employees were retained, and the agency became more efficient in conducting its programs.
Secondly, the relocation of the Economic Research Service, in particular, impacts the statistics upon which the economic research of ERS is based. The NASS and ERS jointly conduct the Agricultural Resource and Management Survey. This requires much collaborative work that will be extremely difficult with agencies this far apart. The ERS provides much input into the development of the quinquennial census of agriculture, and insight into the question and form development. Additionally, ERS researchers have been critical collaborators in working with NASS on changes in agricultural production and marketing with the development of urban agriculture and local foods, not to mention the societal critically important issues around water and access to water for agriculture and society. With likely different ERS researchers with responsibility for these issues and distance in miles due to relocation, collaborative efforts will be impacted and not as effective as past efforts.
Thirdly, as one of thirteen major federal statistical agencies, ERS works collaboratively with the non-USDA agencies in the system. In an environment where research needs to access all relevant information to address an issue, there has been much collaboration and joint work with these agencies. Much of ERS research is based on data sets that have limited access at secure sites, mostly in the Washington, D.C. area. ERS does not work directly with farmers and ranchers but with organizations that support the work that stakeholders often provide most effectively to them.
I urge you to be cognizant of the decreased efficiency, value, and research effectiveness that will result from this poorly planned and implemented relocation.