The GAO has cited a number of flaws in the process the Agriculture Department used in relocating most employees of two subagencies out of the national capital area to the Kansas City area in 2019, including failing to fully take into account the costs and disruption of staff turnover.
The relocation of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture had the stated goals of moving federal employees closer to the people they serve and saving costs on real estate and GS locality pay. However, the GAO said that the process the USDA used “did not fully align with those objectives.”
“For example, USDA used cost of living to screen out locations and then eliminated sites that did not have sufficient space to co-locate NIFA and ERS. However, some of the sites eliminated ranked highly in terms of USDA’s stakeholder proximity and staff recruitment and retention objectives. In addition, USDA omitted critical costs and economic effects from its analysis of taxpayer savings, such as costs related to potential attrition or disruption of activities for a period of time, which may have contributed to an unreliable estimate of savings from relocation,” a report said.
The process also lacked “transparency around key methodological decisions and sensitivity analysis to assess the reasonableness of critical assumptions . . . As a result of the weaknesses GAO found, USDA leadership may have made a relocation decision that was not the best choice to accomplish its stated objectives,” it said.
The relocation of those two agencies was part of a Trump administration initiative that envisioned numerous similar moves although in practice only one other significant move occurred, involving the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management. Both were politically controversial at the time and resulted in large numbers of employees changing jobs or retiring rather than relocating.
GAO did not make recommendations “because, among other reasons, the relocation has already taken place and OMB has since circulated comprehensive guidance on how to build and use quality evidence that, if effectively implemented, should address the weaknesses highlighted.”