For decades, the USDA has been accused of racial and gender discrimination in its programs, hiring and employment practices, and it has been the subject of both class action lawsuits and settlements. A hearing on Tuesday examined shortcomings in its handling of civil rights complaints and explored avenues for improvement.
“Serious problems have plagued the department’s complaints handling for more than half a century and undermine the ability to quickly and effectively resolve civil rights complaints,” said Rep. Jahana Hayes, chair of the subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee on Department Nutrition, Oversight, and Operations. , who held the hearing.
The hearing focused on a September 2021 audit report by the USDA Inspector General who reviewed complaints handled by the USDA’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) between October 2016 and June 2019.
The report looked at a subset of complaints and found that OASCR was taking more than 630 days, on average, to process them. And the pace has gotten slower and slower during the Trump presidency — going from an average of 594 days in fiscal year 2017 to 799 days in fiscal year 2019.
Resolving complaints quickly and effectively is “essential to addressing perceived discrimination in USDA programs and building public confidence that the department can serve everyone,” said Phyllis Fong, Inspector General of the USDA, during the hearing.
Fong said OASCR employees, when asked about the reasons for the delays, said they were understaffed and needed better information technology systems.
The audit also revealed that the office had not documented and justified its decisions. He concluded that the agency was not using its strategic plan to measure its progress because office managers had not established procedures to monitor, review and report on its performance, which prevented managers from determining whether the agency was achieving its own goals.
Fong made three key recommendations for how OASCR can improve its handling of civil rights complaints. First, it should set a specific timeframe for handling complaints, and then develop a plan to achieve those goals. It should review its strategic plan and measure its performance against the plan. Finally, the office needs to make sure it has the data it needs to report on its progress, she said.
Current OASCR director Monica Rainge, deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, agreed to act on all recommendations made in the audit report, Fong said, and the inspector general’s office agreed. actions proposed by the agency.
The position of assistant secretary for civil rights at USDA, which requires Senate confirmation, was vacant throughout the Trump presidency, and the Trump administration also proposed huge budget cuts for OASCR. President Biden appointed Margo Schlanger to the post in September; she is waiting for confirmation.
“Anytime a position is designated as requiring a presidential nomination, there’s a reason for it,” Fong said. “This person sets the tone, has leadership responsibilities and sets policy at the highest level, which sets the tone for the organization. We therefore believe that it is essential that these positions be filled.