Federal Employees News Digest

From D.C. to K.C.? Plan to move USDA expertise to Midwest sparks union resistance, leadership determination

This month, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that after months of weighing the options, USDA will move over 600 employees from two key D.C.-area offices to the Midwest—specifically, to the Kansas City area. The USDA’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture are both powerful parts of USDA, providing policy evaluation and central financial support of food research, respectively. The plan has not been well received. Many USDA employees turned their backs on the Perdue during his announcement in protest. And the American Federation of Government Employees criticized any effort to uproot the government workers involved—and has doubled down since the faraway choice was made. “The USDA has provided no rational justification to employees, to Congress or to its stakeholders for this move,” the union responded. “[The move] will make it harder for the agencies to coordinate with other science and research agencies.” The administration and its allies, for now, are standing by their claim that the move will save hundreds of millions of dollars by slashing expensive national capital area office leases—and will improve outcomes by placing appropriate experts closer to agricultural stakeholders in the nation’s breadbasket. Nathan Abse recently caught up with University of Georgia law professor and food safety expert Timothy D. Lytton. Lytton—author of “Outbreak: Foodborne Illness and the Struggle for Food Safety”—discussed the importance of these federal employees in advancing food safety, and offers his skepticism about the wisdom of the still-embattled plan.

Q&A  with Timothy D. Lytton

What do you think about moving much of ERS and NIFA to the Kansas City area? Is it a good idea—or, like critics say, is it taking experts away from where they need to be?

Lytton: First of all, let’s start with the ERS. There is probably no more sophisticated organization that analyzes the results and effectiveness and efficiency of food safety than the ERS. It’s basically the gold standard for policy research in the area of food safety. And remember it includes top academics from around the world. So, having said that, it’s unclear to me why one would want to upset the current talent pool that ERS relies upon. Now, I don’t pretend to be able to second guess all of the kind of organizational and budgetary implications that might be part of the plan to move out to Kansas City. But I would imagine the move, if it is implemented, will have a detrimental effect on the current talent pool at ERS—and that this is likely to be bad for our country’s ability to assess the success of our current food safety efforts.

I hear your concern—but also your measured response. Isn’t it worse than that?—I mean, in recent months departures from the agency are up, and morale seems down—and what about concerns that these particular employees need to interact with folks at labs in the D.C. area?

Lytton: The ERS doesn’t so much interact specifically with people in labs. Rather, what ERS does is draw from many sources to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t in our food safety process. The U.S. government invests—especially in the USDA—a large amount of resources in implementing and enforcing regulations for meat and poultry—and egg—safety. Now, regarding all of these and other regulations for quality in agriculture, the ERS is one of the only organs of government that provides a responsible assessment of what the return on that investment is, for all of that U.S. government—that is, taxpayer—money. So, it’s not so much that people at ERS are interacting with labs—or that sort of thing. What they are doing is providing one of the only serious kinds of accountability that exists for government spending in the area of food safety. To disrupt this crucial ability to accomplish that, I feel, is going to make it much harder to know whether or not what we spend all this money on is working.

So, that’s what you think about the ERS and a move to Kansas City—what about NIFA’s move?

Lytton: Okay—as for NIFA, NIFA is somewhat different than ERS. NIFA funds research, much of which actually does have to do with [funding] laboratories, and microbiology. I am right now actually doing some NIFA grant-funded research, by the way—research into whether liability insurance and recall insurance are some things that might improve food safety. The point is, NIFA funds research largely outside of government. I do not know how a move out to Kansas City would affect their ability to disburse that money. But I can tell you with regard to the Economic Research Service, insofar as you are going to be disrupting the talent pool, you are likely to have a very difficult time rebuilding the same caliber of staff that the ERS needs and currently has.

Union leaders are opposed to the move, and they still hope that they might stop or stall this—although they claim the threat has caused some loss of talent. Can you comment?

Lytton: I think there are at least a couple congressional committees looking to exert pressure here. And it may be that congressional oversight—especially budgetary oversight—may be one of the most powerful levers available to people who oppose this move.

I suppose you’re saying we don’t know what will happen yet?

Lytton: No, we don’t. Again, my sense is though that the strongest leverage on this issue at the moment could be leverage that makes use of congressional oversight.

I’m pretty sure most people don’t even know what these USDA units do—just as your book notes that many of the complex details on food safety keep the public confused, right?   

Lytton:  Yes, that’s right. But again, I’ll try to explain the function of the ERS: it’s a special kind of agency in the US government. Why? Because it’s an agency that essentially is internal to the government—the people who work there are civil servants—and they conduct very independent research.  And they have wide enough autonomy that it gives them a special level of integrity—integrity that most sponsored research is not felt to have, especially research that occurs within agencies that are under the direction of political appointees. And the ERS has exercised over the years what I would consider an extraordinary amount of independence. There are a handful of other agencies like this. The ERS is widely considered to be a gem of policy analysis within the U.S. government. Finally, the Ag Department is so big, and spends so much money, that it is especially important to keep track of the return on investment for taxpayer dollars. It is vital to have some autonomous, independent-minded group of people with insider knowledge as to how things occur within the USDA and how they spend money outside. That group is ERS.

In your recent book, “Outbreak: Foodborne Illness and the Struggle for Food Safety,” you examine several major breakdowns in food safety and how responding to them actually has helped lead to improvements, right?

Lytton: Yes. The book traces significant outbreaks and how they have affected the system. The Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 was a major one, the 2006 Dole baby spinach outbreak in California was important, the 2008 Jensen Farms melon listeria outbreak, the Peanut Corp of America outbreak in 2010—and the DeCoster eggs outbreak, which sickened tens of thousands of people and ended up in half a billion eggs being recalled and time behind bars for the head of that company.

With that list of big outbreaks in mind, are our federal agencies doing a good job?  

Lytton: There’s no easy answer. We spend a lot of money on trying to address and prevent food-borne illnesses. We know it’s a big danger and problem. But you want to know what works. In the vast majority of our regulatory programs, we don’t know if a particular regulation is doing a good job. We don’t know whether or not it’s effective, or if it’s efficient. One of the few sources of information—reliable information—about how effective our food safety regulations are, comes from reports published by the ERS of the USDA. Other than that there is precious little information about what works and what doesn’t. This is the importance of the agency. It comes as a surprise to people that we spend a huge amount of taxpayer dollars on food safety regulations, but precious little on figuring out whether these regulations and measures work. The ERS is one of the few agencies that does know that.

One rationale the administration offers for the move is USDA office costs in D.C. But USDA HQ is huge—why do they have to rent a lot of space, and how do rents become a reason for moving?

Lytton: In New York State, we had a parallel situation. In the 1990s, Gov. Pataki felt it was important to push certain agencies of the New York State government out of the state capital. There is a general sense among some people that to centralize any government in one place is in some ways dangerous and gives the government too much power. They say it is inherently more democratic to disperse pieces of a government agency out in places where there are stakeholders and where it is cheaper to operate. But I think you also have to weigh how the concentration of people in one place actually can create a lot of efficiency and the development of a centralized talent pool. This seems the case when you are need to draw from, say, a pool of highly-qualified economists of the highest caliber—and you are likely to succeed better at that in a major American metro center like Washington, D.C., than you are in a secondary city. I do not mean to suggest that Kansas City is not desirable. I have lived in smaller cities, but when I moved to Atlanta, the talent pool there was much larger than, say, when I was in Albany. My guess is it’s the same kind of situation between Washington, D.C. compared with a medium-sized Midwestern city.

Such polarized politics, now. One side says, “Good—move employees out of D.C. and move them closer to stakeholders in the Midwest!” and the other side says, “Bad—it’s a corporate ruse to push personnel away from D.C. to control them!” Comment?

Lytton: That’s right. American politics today is driven by people who are trying to whip up their base. So, this very important public policy question about where we should locate ERS or NIFA becomes an just another opportunity to whip up the base. As you said, on one side you get a narrative that “Hey, this is really about dismantling an overreaching big government that is too highly centralized to get it closer to the people.” On the other side, you get a narrative that says “No—this plan is just another ploy by industry and its friends in Washington to dismantle an agency that protects us!” My opinion is that neither of these attempts to whip up the base is helpful in explaining to your average voter what is really at stake, or what are the factors involved in moving large pieces of these important agencies to a Midwestern city. These arguments just don’t have to do with whether or not we are going to dismantle big government or protect the American consumer. The real issue has to be about how we’re going to preserve the best talent pool we can for an agency that it is dedicated to figuring out whether our tax dollars are well spent on these serious issues. Put that way, it’s less flashy, it doesn’t whip up the base, and you can’t get a lot of political contributions out of it—but the issue here is actually of vital importance to the average voter.

Anything else you want to say on the move?

Lytton: No, I think what we’ve been discussing, honing in on here is dead-on. I think we should want to move people from being whipped up—away from a place of outrage and on to a place where they can sit down and think, “Do I think this move would be helpful? Or do I think this will damage the talent pool?” And this kind of consideration is not just about food safety, it’s about government accountability.

News opinion pieces are out now for and against the move—but most allow that Kansas City is a key center of American agriculture science—but critics object that’s giving too much to proponents of the move. Your comment?

Lytton: I wouldn’t agree with anyone who might say that the Midwest is weak on that front. It’s actually very strong on this. If you look at which schools have strong Ph.D. programs in agricultural economics, you’ll find Purdue and University of Iowa, for example, and others. You’ll find powerhouses like that in the Midwest. So, I think it’s wrong to suggest that there’s no way to recruit good appropriate economists in the area—or that all the top academic pool is “only on the East Coast” or in California Because that’s just not the case. But again is a move for most of these agencies really the best for getting the best talent pool? And does the move disrupt the very deep pool they already have now? And, you have to think about this—it all depends on what we’re talking about when we say “agriculture.” Most of America’s grain and soybeans are grown in the Midwest. But if you’re talking about fresh produce, you’re talking about California. Other geographical areas are agriculturally important too, for other products. All of this should be considered.

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