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Continue quality control reviews of complaint FADs, and monitor case inventory and workload productivity. Every FAD is currently reviewed by OASCR for

    Statement of

    Honorable Joe Leonard, Jr.

    Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights

    United States Department of Agriculture

    Before the

    Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry

     House of Representatives

    Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit

    this statement on the review of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of

    the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR).

    I have been in the position of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at USDA for 23 days.

    During this time, I have met several times with Secretary Vilsack and other senior leadership,

    OASCR employees, and begun my initial assessment of civil rights in the Department. After

    several sessions with the Secretary, I can assure you he is committed and is the driving force to

    turn around civil rights at USDA. Secretary Vilsack expressed his commitment to improving

    civil rights in his first meeting with USDA employees when he told them civil rights is one of his

    top priorities.

    I share Secretary Vilsack’s dedication and commitment to civil rights. My career in social justice and civil rights is a testament to that end and I foresee that commitment playing a vital

    role in overseeing civil rights at USDA. I am confident that I, along with the staff that Secretary

    Vilsack has put together at USDA, will be able to tackle the barriers and challenges facing civil

    rights at the Department.

    The recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the “Management

    Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights” lists six recommendations

    that I plan to begin implementing immediately. During its review, GAO assessed USDA’s

    efforts to (1) resolve discrimination complaints, (2) report on minority participation in farm

    programs, and (3) strategically plan its efforts. The report is based on new and prior reports,

    including an analysis of OASCR’s discrimination complaint management and strategic planning, and interviews with officials of USDA and other agencies, as well as 20 USDA stakeholder

    groups. GAO made recommendations for executive action to USDA to resolve discrimination

    complaints; improve data reliability; develop a civil rights strategic plan; obtain an independent

    review of USDA processes; obtain approval for data collection; and explore establishing an

    ombudsman.

     Below is how I plan to address the recommendations made specifically to USDA:

    GAO Recommendation: Prepare and implement an improvement plan for resolving

    discrimination complaints that sets timeframe goals and provides management controls for

    resolving complaints from beginning to end.

USDA Response: USDA’s improvement plan includes:

    1. Evaluate and adjust staffing levels to ensure resolution of discrimination complaints in a

    timely manner.

    ? Continue the interagency agreement with the National Equal Employment Opportunity

    Investigative Services in the U.S. Postal Service to assist with the overflow of

    employment complaint cases that cannot be timely processed by OASCR staff, and

    continue to utilize contract attorneys to prepare final agency decisions (FADs). By June

    30, 2009, conduct an internal workload analysis to determine if additional contract

    attorneys are needed.

    ? OASCR has procured the services of a special advisor, Lloyd Wright, to conduct a

    workload analysis and to develop a plan for required staffing to review program

    complaints that have been processed since fiscal year 2000 and those currently being

    processed. The staffing plan includes staff needed to conduct the quality assurance

    review of complaints processed since the fiscal year 2000, as well as permanent staff to

    conduct investigations and adjudication of complaints. A task force will be immediately

    created to begin to carry out the plan developed by Mr. Wright.

    2. Improve the quality control procedures.

    ? By October 1, 2009, review and revise performance standards based on the results of the

    workload analysis for all employees who process complaints to ensure reasonable

    quantity is achieved while not sacrificing quality.

    ? Continue quality control reviews of complaint FADs, and monitor case inventory and

    workload productivity. Every FAD is currently reviewed by OASCR for quality control.

? Implement Lloyd Wright’s task force plan recommendations, which include quality

    assurance for program complaints processed since fiscal year 2000.

    ? Design and implement management controls to ensure complaints are received, stored

    and processed in a consistent manner, within specific timeframes. The first phase of this

    process has been implemented by a contract to review and design a state of the art

    electronic records system.

    ? Create and institute a correspondence management policy and plan for all OASCR

    correspondence.

    ? In response to the economic challenges, the Secretary will continue to use his existing

    authority to temporarily suspend all current foreclosures within the Farm Service

    Agency’s farm loan program for approximately 90 days. This time also affords the

    Department the opportunity to review the loans for any problems associated with possible

    discriminatory conduct. USDA is also in discussions with the Department of Justice

    regarding their exercising their authority to review existing litigation over these loans, so

    that such a review might be conducted.

    ? OASCR will review the organization and roles of the OASCR and ensure that appropriate

    emphasis and staffing is being placed on enforcement of EEO and Civil Rights laws

    regarding employment and program delivery by July 1, 2009.

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3. Establish a state-of-the-art records management system.

    ? OASCR has hired a trained Records Manager and is implementing procedures to ensure

    that the records management program is in compliance with applicable Departmental

    regulations.

    ? OASCR will design and implement management controls to ensure complaints are

    received, stored and processed in a consistent manner, within specific timeframes. The

    first phase of this process has been implemented by a contract to review and design a

    state of the art electronic records system.

4. Hold agency heads accountable for their performance in program and employment complaint

    processing.

    ? Each year OASCR evaluates agency heads using the Agency Head Civil Rights

    Performance Assessment Plan. USDA agency heads will be held accountable for their

    timely submission of counselor reports, agency position statements and employment

    reports of investigation.

5. Strengthen Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) across the Department.

    ? By December 30, 2009, develop a plan for the organizational structure of ADR and best

    practices based on the results of the ombudsman study.

    GAO Recommendation: Develop and implement a plan to ensure the accuracy, completeness and reliability of OASCR’s databases on customer and employee complaints, and that provides

    for independent validation of OASCR’s data quality.

    USDA Response: USDA will take immediate action to migrate all program complaint data to one data system; add additional data elements to ensure usefulness of the system; and develop

    Departmental policy and training for agency Civil Rights directors to ensure consistent use of the

    system. Quality assurance will be an integral part of this process.

    GAO Recommendation: Obtain an expert, independent and objective legal examination of the basis, quality, and adequacy of a sample of USDA’s prior investigations and decisions on civil

    rights complaints, along with suggestions for improvement.

USDA Response: Through the creation of the earlier mentioned task force, USDA will

    immediately create a Task Force to conduct a review of program civil rights complaints that have

    been processed since the year 2000 or that are currently being processed. The efforts of the task

    force will be supported with assistance from an independent legal counsel with additional

    resources to conduct the review, investigations, and complaint adjudication. Agencies will be

    asked to contribute detailees for both short-and long-term phases of the task.

    GAO Recommendation: To improve USDA efforts to address civil rights issues and the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, work expeditiously to obtain

    OMB’s approval to collect the demographic data necessary for reliable reporting on race and

    ethnicity by USDA program.

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USDA Response: OASCR will, in collaboration with OMB and other relevant agencies, fully

    implement automated corporate race, ethnicity, and sex, national origin, disability, and age data

    collection for NRCS, FSA, and RD at the field office level. The second phase will be the

    development of a corporate proposal across USDA. OASCR, in collaboration with the service

    center agencies, will implement all provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill related to tracking and

    monitoring of client services, including “Receipt for Services” by October 1, 2009.

    GAO Recommendation: Develop a results-oriented Department-level strategic plan for civil rights at USDA that unifies USDA’s Departmental approach with that of OASCR and the newly

    created Office of Advocacy and Outreach and that is transparent about USDA’s efforts to

    address the concerns of stakeholders.

USDA Response: USDA will ensure that its strategic plan incorporates a comprehensive,

    results-oriented, Department-wide strategy for civil rights, including outreach, and addresses the

    concerns of constituents and stakeholders. USDA will:

    ? Publish a Request for Proposals (RFP) to obtain an independent external analysis of

    program delivery in our field offices of Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm

    Service Agency and Rural Development which will provide specific recommendations

    and methodologies that will ensure that programs are delivered equitably and that access

    is afforded to all constituents, with particular emphasis on socially disadvantaged

    farmers, ranchers, and other constituents. While this study will apply to these three

    agencies, the results may be implemented in all USDA agencies to ensure that all USDA

    programs are accessible.

    ? Establish separate outreach, advocacy and diversity functions and the completion of the

    study of the field office delivery system.

    ? Draft a final report summarizing the information gleaned from the previous partners’

    meetings to be published by June 30, 2009 and to be considered in the field office

    delivery system study.

    GAO Recommendation: Further explore the potential for an ombudsman office to contribute to addressing the civil rights concerns of USDA customers and employees, including seeking

    legislative authority, as appropriate, to establish such an office and to ensure its effectiveness,

    and advise USDA’s congressional oversight committees of the results.

USDA Response: USDA has convened a team to study the creation of an ombudsman office,

    including Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) services in the Department, and to make

    recommendations for establishing the office and strengthening the ADR function by September

    30, 2009.

     I am confident that under Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, civil rights at the Department

    will be improved in a transparent and ethical manner which will lead the way in making USDA a

    model organization. We will implement in an expeditious manner, GAO’s recommendations and

    initiatives that result from my final assessment of civil rights matters at the Department. It is

    Secretary Vilsack’s and my top priority to ensure that all USDA applicants, customers,

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constituents and stakeholders, as well as all USDA employees, are provided equal access to the

    opportunities, programs and services available through “the People’s Department.”

     Again, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to share the Department’s plan on

    how to address challenges and barriers facing civil rights at USDA.

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