A report released today by the independent investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), says the civil rights efforts overseen by Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are marked by significant deficiencies and recommends new accountability structures to correct ongoing failures.
Specifically, GAO found that USDA fails to track and adjudicate civil rights complaints, fails to provide accurate data regarding minority participation in USDA programs, and fails to adequately undertake strategic planning with respect to civil rights. The report was conducted at the request of U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and U.S. Representatives Joe Baca (D-CA) and Edolphus Towns (D-NY). The lawmakers asked the GAO to focus especially on the performance of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, a position created in the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act and tasked with directing civil rights efforts across USDA.
Earlier this year, the lawmakers protested directly to USDA when reports surfaced that the Department obstructed and temporarily shut down the GAO investigation. According to GAO, USDA officials delayed providing information and, in some cases, instructed USDA employees not to comply with GAO.
To determine whether, as a result of this legislation, the Department of Agriculture has improved its civil rights performance, Senators Harkin, Lugar, and Grassley, as well as Representatives Baca and Towns, asked GAO to investigate USDA civil rights actions since the 2002 farm bill, including the actions of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in 1) resolving discrimination complaints, 2) reporting on minority participation in USDA programs and, 3) strategic planning for ensuring USDAs services and benefits are provided fairly and equitably.
Key GAO Findings:
- The Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights has not achieved its goal of preventing backlogs of pending civil rights complaints, with some complaints still pending from the early 2000s. In addition, GAO found that progress report from the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights regarding the extent of and resolution of complaints have been inconsistent.
- The reports published by the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, required by law, regarding minority participation in USDA programs are unreliable and of limited usefulness. Furthermore, USDA has not taken the steps necessary to improve the reliability of the data.
- The strategic planning of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights has not included the necessary steps to provide fair and equitable services to all customers and uphold the civil rights of its employees.
To remedy the lack of civil rights compliance at USDA, GAO recommended three possible actions.
- A statutory performance agreement containing measurable goals and expectations in key performance areas.
- An independent and empowered civil rights oversight board tasked with approving, monitoring, and evaluating USDA civil rights activities.
- An effective ombudsperson, independent, impartial, and fully capable of conducting meaningful investigations of USDA actions.