Secretary Vilsack has made it a priority to build a new era for civil rights at USDA and ensure that all customers and employees are treated fairly, no matter their race, color, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, disability or age. Over the past six years, we have corrected past errors, learned from mistakes, and charted a stronger path for the future where all Americans are treated with dignity and respect.
Providing Better Service to USDA's Customers
- Conducted training for Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Rural Development leadership and staff at state offices in more than a dozen states with a history of civil rights problems. As a result of these focused civil rights trainings, between 2010 and 2014, USDA's Farm Service Agency recorded the lowest number of customer civil rights complaints since the Department began keeping track.
- Reduced the typical processing time for new civil rights program complaints from four years to 18 months.
- Formalized protections for customers from discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression in 2013.
- Created a single, USDA-wide form that customers and program participants can use to file a civil rights complaint. The form helps to simplify and expedite the process for those who believe they have been discriminated against. By capturing all of the information needed to accept a complaint, the form will reduce the time it takes to process complaints.
- Launched a long-requested initiative to provide an early Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) option in complaints of program discrimination. Seventy-five percent of program complaints received last year reached resolution through ADR, avoiding the need for lengthy investigation and adjudication.
- Drafted a proposed rule in fiscal year 2014 that prohibits age discrimination in programs and activities receiving financial assistance from USDA.
- Issued a Departmental Regulation in 2014 that prohibits national origin discrimination affecting persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) in both conducted and assisted programs and activities.
- Revised USDA's nondiscrimination regulation for conducted programs to include explicit protections against gender identity and gender expression discrimination.
- Realigned the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights to report directly to the Office of the Secretary, in accordance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations.
- Analyzed the potential for new policies, rules and decisions to impact civil rights. Over the past three years, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights recommended important changes on about 25 percent of all policies reviewed.
Correcting Past Mistakes
- Announced with the Department of Justice the historic $1.25 billion Pigford II settlement with African American farmers in 2010.
- Announced a historic settlement agreement with Native American farmers who claim to have faced discrimination by USDA in past decades. To improve relations with Native American Tribes, USDA named the first time a Senior Advisor on Tribal Relations, and all USDA agencies are working to engage with and be thoughtful about tribal issues.
- Began carrying out in 2012 a unified claims process to provide a path to justice for Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who claimed to have faced discrimination by USDA in past decades.
- Took action to address recommendations from an August 2012 Government Accountability Office report on its October 2008 audit in which GAO reported on management deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
Improved Outreach Efforts
- Commissioned an independent assessment of civil rights in USDA's program delivery. USDA agencies are working to implement the recommendations of the assessment to help improve field-based service delivery to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and communities that have historically not participated in USDA programs.
- Established an historic Memorandum of Understanding in May 2012 to increase cooperation on groundbreaking research between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), and the 1890 Land-Grant Universities.
- Reinitiated a robust internal compliance review process of USDA agencies to evaluate their civil rights and equal opportunity policies, procedures and practices.
- Worked with small and minority-owned businesses to purchase goods and services to meet USDA's mission requirements. From 2009-2014, 12.82 percent ($6 billion) of USDA's procurement dollars were spent on products and services from small and disadvantaged small businesses. USDA remains a forerunner of achieving its small business goal of 54.70 percent in fiscal year 2014, which is more than double the federal average of 23 percent.
- Established the Office of Advocacy and Outreach in 2010 to improve access to USDA programs and enhance the viability and profitability of small farms and ranches, beginning farmers and ranchers, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
- Created a Minority Farmer Advisory Committee to advise the Department on outreach strategies.
- Despite USDA's investments, there are parts of rural America where persistent poverty remains. In fact, nearly 85 percent of America's persistent poverty counties are in rural areas. In order to address the challenges faced by those communities and help them prosper, in 2010, USDA established the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative, a broad commitment to grow economies, increase investments and create opportunities in poverty-stricken rural communities through intensive outreach and stronger partnerships with community organizations. Through StrikeForce, USDA has now partnered with almost 500 community and faith-based organizations, businesses, foundations, universities and other groups to support 109,000 projects with almost $14 billion in investments in rural communities.
- Made significant modifications to the FSA County committee structure by annually reviewing local administrative area boundaries to ensure a fair representation of minority and women producers in county or multi-county jurisdictions are elected. In addition to elected members, FSA county committees may also include advisors who are appointed to county committees in counties or multi-county jurisdictions that have significant numbers of minority or women producers and lack such members on the committees.
- Increased outreach efforts by FSA have resulted in greater diversity of not only the candidates for County committee elections but also an increase in the diversity of nominees elected.
- However, when a statistical analysis demonstrated that a lack of diversity still existed on a small number of county committees, the Secretary used his authority under the 2002 Farm Bill to appoint voting County committee members where needed to address underrepresentation of socially disadvantaged (SDA) farmers and ranchers. This has resulted in Secretarial SDA appointments to slightly over 100 county committees following each of the elections in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Cultivating a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce
- Launched a Department-wide Cultural Transformation effort to create an environment for USDA employees that fosters growth and helps us become a top-notch service provider.
- Expanded the diversity of USDA's Senior Executive Service Corps members. Today, USDA's SES Corps are the most diverse government wide and we have made significant improvements in the diversity of our workforce and student interns.
- For the last five years the number of equal employment opportunity complaints by employees has been among the lowest since the Department began keeping track.