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 seven 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 civil rights trainings for USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Rural Development (RD) leadership and staff in more than a dozen states with a history of civil rights problems. As a result of these focused trainings, FSA reported the fewest customer civil rights complaints on record from 2010 2014.
- Reduced average evaluation time to accept or dismiss civil rights program complaints by 75 percent.
- Reduced average processing time for new civil rights program complaints from four years to 18 months.
- Reduced the inventory of program civil rights complaints pending final agency decision to the lowest level in five years in FY 2015.
- Formalized protections for customers from discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression in 2013.
- Created a simplified form for customers and program participants to use for civil rights complaints. The form helps expedite the process for those who believe they have experienced discrimination by USDA. 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. Program ADR has successfully provided fast mutually approved resolutions to USDA customer civil rights complaints.
- 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.
- Provided guidance and oversight to USDA agencies, divisions and units implementing new policies for LEP.
- In 2015, issued a Departmental Regulation prohibiting age discrimination in programs and activities receiving financial assistance from USDA.
- Issued an updated Departmental Regulation in 2015 establishing improved procedures for processing complaints of discrimination in conducted programs.
- Issued a statement in 2015 updating USDA's anti-harassment policy.
- Conducted agency-wide training under MD 715 regarding the requirements of operating and improving a model EEO program.
- 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 impacting 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
- With the Department of Justice, announced the historic $1.25 billion Pigford II settlement with African American farmers in 2010.
- Announced the historic Keepseagle settlement agreement with Native American farmers who 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 in 2012, and all USDA agencies are continually working to engage tribal communities.
- Initiated a unified claims process in 2012 providing pathways to justice for Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers who claimed to have experienced discrimination by USDA in past decades.
- Took action to address recommendations from an August 2012 Government Accountability Office report citing 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 recommendations which will improve field-based service delivery to minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
- 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 (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, beginning, 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. That's why USDA established the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative in 2010, making a commitment to strengthen rural economies and create opportunities through increased investments, intensive outreach, and strengthened partnerships with community organizations. Through StrikeForce, USDA has partnered with almost 500 community and faith-based organizations, businesses, foundations and universities to support 109,000 projects, investing nearly $14 billion in America's rural communities.
- Made significant modifications to the Farm Service Agency (FSA) county committee structure by annually reviewing local administrative area boundaries, ensuring fair representation of elected minority and women producers in county or multi-county jurisdictions. In addition to elected members, FSA county committees may appoint advisors to committees lacking adequate representation for counties or multi-county jurisdictions with significant numbers of socially disadvantaged producers.
- Increased outreach efforts by FSA have resulted in greater diversity among candidates for county committee elections, and among those elected.
- When a statistical analysis demonstrated a persistent lack of diversity on a small number of county committees, Secretary Vilsack used his authority under the 2002 Farm Bill to appoint county committee members to address underrepresentation of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. This has resulted in Secretarial SDA appointments to over 100 county committees following elections in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
- In 2015, USDA expanded the microloan program providing flexible access to credit, and increased lending limits. Beginning and small farmers can now borrow up to $50,000 to help finance farm operations.
Cultivating a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce
- Launched a Department-wide Cultural Transformation initiative to create an environment which fosters growth and provides quality services for all USDA employees.
- Expanded the diversity of USDA's Senior Executive Service Corps (SES) members. Today, USDA's SES Corps are the most diverse across the U.S. government. We have made significant improvements in the diversity of our workforce, including student interns.
- For the past five years, the number of equal employment opportunity complaints reported by employees has been among the lowest on record by the Department.