USDA creates FPAC Business Center on par with FSA, RMA, NRCS
PHOENIX — The Trump administration has created a new administrative division in the new Farm Production and Conservation mission area that will have the same stature as the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The new FPAC Business Center’s responsibilities will include authority over information technology, a USDA area that has been plagued with problems for years.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in September that the administration intended to create a business center to reduce what it sees as “redundancies and inefficiencies” in the management of the three USDA divisions, but few details have emerged until now.
Heather Manzano, the acting RMA administrator, will announce the establishment of the new division today at the crop insurance industry convention here. Manzano also spoke about the new division at the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau annual meeting Feb. 2.
Moving employees out of FSA, RMA and NRCS to the new Business Center is not without controversy. After Manzano’s presentation, Brandon Willis, the RMA administrator in the Obama administration, told The Hagstrom Report, “Historically when you’ve taken things like this outside of the agency the customer service falls. Hopefully there is strong oversight to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Willis said the oversight would have to come from the undersecretary and the agency heads. They have not yet been appointed because Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, placed a hold on the nomination of Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey as undersecretary for farm production and conservation.
Perdue has said he does not want to appoint the FSA, RMA and NRCS heads until Northey is confirmed by the Senate. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Steve Censky has said, however, USDA officials began interviewing candidates for those positions.
Robert Johansson, the USDA chief economist who is the acting deputy undersecretary for farm production and conservation, said it will be necessary to make sure that RMA, the smallest of the three agencies, gets the proper level of service. But he noted that the politically appointed heads of FSA, RMA and NRCS “will have a straight line” to the secretary.
The creation of the FPAC Business Center is part of a Trump administration’s reorganization of the Agriculture Department following the implementation of the Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs mission area with its own undersecretary, as mandated in the 2014 farm bill.
Previously FSA, RMA and the Foreign Agricultural Service had made up the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services mission area, which had its own undersecretary. The Trump administration transferred the Foreign Agricultural Service to the new trade mission area and then transferred NRCS from the undersecretary for natural resources and environment to the FPAC.
Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Ted McKinney has assumed his position, but Northey’s confirmation has been held up due to a dispute over ethanol. A source close to the Trump administration said it’s now questionable whether Northey will be confirmed. Northey is also under pressure to decide if he will run for re-election as Iowa agriculture secretary.
Under the new structure, certain administrative personnel from FSA, RMA and NRCS will be transferred to the new FPAC Business Center, which will have the same level of authority as FSA, RMA and NRCS.
But while FSA, RMA and NRCS will be headed by political appointees, the FPAC Business Center will be headed by a civil servant, Robert Stephenson, who holds the title of chief operating officer for the USDA Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area’s Business Center and executive vice president for the Commodity Credit Corporation, which funds most of the USDA commodity, export and some conservation programs.
The structure calls for the chief operating officer to be assisted by a deputy COO for business services and a deputy COO for enterprise services. Tom Christensen, an associate chief of NRCS, has been appointed deputy COO for business services and Joy Harwood, the FSA chief economist, has been appointed the acting deputy COO for enterprise services and secretary of the Commodity Credit Corporation.
The Hagstrom Report obtained a draft of USDA’s planning document for the FPAC Business Center (see link), but USDA officials warned that the FPAC Business Center is not scheduled to be fully operational until Sept. 30 and said the structure has not been finalized.
Decisions have not been made about how many FSA, RMA and NRCS employees would be transferred to the new division, but the responsibilities of the deputy COOs for business services and enterprise are extraordinarily broad.
According to a draft document of the structure, the deputy COO for business services will be in charge of the following activities:
» Financial management
» Information technology
» Human resources
» Management services
» Grants and agreements
The deputy COO for enterprise services will be in charge of the following:
» Customer experience
» Economic and policy analysis
» Customer experience
» Emergency preparedness
» Environmental activities
» Civil rights
» Appeals and litigation
» External affairs — legislative affairs and communications and outreach
The creation of the FPAC Business Center appears to be the first of centers that may be created throughout USDA.
As Perdue noted in his September news release, “While creating the Farm Production and Conservation mission area, it became apparent that across USDA there are redundancies and inefficiencies in the mission support activities.”
“Presently some agencies maintain redundant administrative support functions, including human resources, information technology (IT), finance, procurement, and property management,” Perdue said.
“For example, there are 22 employees in the department that are identified as chief information officers (CIOs). Having such a large number of CIOs creates redundancies throughout the department when it comes to leadership on IT activities and services and results in unnecessary layering of leadership and direction.
“Therefore, mission support activities will be merged at the mission area level across USDA,” Perdue said. “Through these mergers, the mission areas will not only increase operational efficiencies, but also maximize collaboration between agencies that serve similar customers. This has happened in many of the support activities in mission areas already and is working well.”