Politics & Government

USDA mismanaged rural outreach program, audit finds

A rural development program the U.S. Department of Agriculture has touted as a success selected participants with “questionable qualifications” and then didn’t perform the necessary legwork to see whether the groups did what they were supposed to, according to a new federal audit.

The participating community organizations – selected to help the department better communicate with citizens on the local level, and to boost participation in Department of Agriculture programs in under-served areas – were picked without regard to qualifications and without a competitive process as required, according to the audit from the department’s inspector general.

Indeed, three of the four organizations audited in what is called the department’s StrikeForce Initiative “had little to no experience with either USDA programs or with performing outreach activities.” One, the report said, “had no experience with agriculture, USDA or the type of outreach activities needed” and “was not qualified to accomplish the goals” of the program.

And once selected, the participants – known as CBOs, or “community-based organizations” – didn’t use the money awarded in an effective manner, the report said.

“One CBO did not use StrikeForce funding to conduct any outreach activities to promote USDA programs,” the inspector general concluded. “Instead, it used the funding to maintain school gardens, build a greenhouse and conduct cooking classes – all unrelated to the three goals of the strategic plan.”

The inspector general focused on StrikeForce spending in three states: Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi. The particular programs, however, weren’t named, and the public report is heavily redacted in parts.

The USDA, in responses to the inspector general, said it was working to address the problems, although the inspector general in some instances said it was not yet satisfied with the department’s proposed solutions. The inspector general made 13 recommendations; the department responded to all 13, but in four cases was told by the inspector general “we do not accept management decision.”

In a statement from Curt Wiley, assistant secretary for administration in the department’s central office, the Department of Agriculture told McClatchy that it was working to correct the problems.

“The recommendations in this report have been implemented already or are in the process of being addressed,” he said, adding, “USDA takes this OIG report and all efforts to maintain program accountability very seriously, so that all of this critical program’s resources are used to strengthen rural communities as intended.”

In the statement, Wiley also said that management of the StrikeForce program has been changed, although the department did not specify who was involved or how that happened.

He said the program “continues to have tremendous impact in rural America by bringing needed services, resources and opportunities to 770 persistently poor counties in 20 states.”

The amount of money in the inspector general’s report isn’t much: $2.7 million. But it was for the StrikeForce Initiative’s pilot program. The department later expanded the program significantly.

The StrikeForce works like this: Officials first identify areas of persistent poverty and then work with state, local and community officials to increase awareness of USDA programs. The idea is to build participation in Department of Agriculture programs, thus helping boost farming or business activities and helping pull those in the community out of poverty.

In a 2013 release, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that since 2010, the department had partnered with over 400 local community-based organizations to promote local or regional development projects.

“The StrikeForce Initiative is helping us direct additional resources to better serve producers in persistent poverty rural communities,” he said. “We are focusing on these identified high poverty areas to help improve the quality of life of producers and their communities and to accelerate implementation of conservation practices on their land.”

According to the department, the program “is showing significant results.”

The inspector general reviewed the StrikeForce Initiative’s pilot program, finding that the four community groups selected to participate were picked without a competitive process. Further, three of the four “hand-picked CBOs had questionable qualifications to adequately achieve the goals of the initiative.”

The inspector general concluded: “Although the goals of the StrikeForce Initiative pilot program were worthwhile, we found insufficient evidence to support that positive results were achieved for the program’s goals.”

Visits to the community groups found that they didn’t receive any specific, official guidance on how to use the program’s money, and that the agreements used to award the money were “very vague,” the audit said.