U.S. Department of Agriculture: Management of Civil Rights	 
Efforts Continues to Be Deficient Despite Years of Attention	 
(14-MAY-08, GAO-08-755T).					 
                                                                 
For decades, there have been allegations of discrimination in the
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and workforce.	 
Reports and congressional testimony by the U.S. Commission on	 
Civil Rights, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a
former Secretary of Agriculture, USDA's Office of Inspector	 
General, GAO, and others have described weaknesses in USDA's	 
programs--in particular, in resolving complaints of		 
discrimination and in providing minorities access to programs.	 
The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 authorized the
creation of the position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights 
(ASCR), giving USDA an executive that could provide leadership	 
for resolving these long-standing problems. This testimony	 
focuses on USDA's efforts to (1) resolve discrimination 	 
complaints, (2) report on minority participation in USDA	 
programs, and (3) strategically plan its efforts. This testimony 
is based on new and prior work, including analysis of ASCR's	 
strategic plan; discrimination complaint management; and about	 
120 interviews with officials of USDA and other federal agencies,
as well as 20 USDA stakeholder groups. USDA officials reviewed	 
the facts upon which this statement is based, and we incorporated
their additions and clarifications as appropriate. GAO plans a	 
future report with recommendations.				 
-------------------------Indexing Terms------------------------- 
REPORTNUM:   GAO-08-755T					        
    ACCNO:   A82114						        
  TITLE:     U.S. Department of Agriculture: Management of Civil      
Rights Efforts Continues to Be Deficient Despite Years of	 
Attention							 
     DATE:   05/14/2008 
  SUBJECT:   Agricultural programs				 
	     Civil rights					 
	     Civil rights law enforcement			 
	     Claims						 
	     Claims processing					 
	     Claims settlement					 
	     Data collection					 
	     Data integrity					 
	     Discrimination					 
	     Employees						 
	     Employment discrimination				 
	     Employment of minorities				 
	     Fair employment programs				 
	     Minorities 					 
	     Performance measures				 
	     Program evaluation 				 
	     Program management 				 
	     Racial discrimination				 
	     Reporting requirements				 
	     Strategic planning 				 
	     Program goals or objectives			 
	     Program implementation				 

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GAO-08-755T

   

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Testimony before the Subcommittee on Government Management, 
Organization, and Procurement, Committee on Oversight and Government 
Reform, House of Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office:
GAO: 

For Release on Delivery: 
Expected at 2:00 p.m. EDT: 
Wednesday, May 14, 2008: 

U.S. Department of Agriculture: 

Management of Civil Rights Efforts Continues to Be Deficient Despite 
Years of Attention: 

Statement of Lisa Shames: 
Director: 
Natural Resources and Environment: 

GAO-08-755T: 

GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-08-755T, a testimony before the Subcommittee on 
Government Management, Organization, and Procurement, Committee on 
Oversight and Government Reform, House of Representatives. 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

For decades, there have been allegations of discrimination in the U.S. 
Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and workforce. Reports and 
congressional testimony by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the 
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a former Secretary of 
Agriculture, USDA�s Office of Inspector General, GAO, and others have 
described weaknesses in USDA�s programs�in particular, in resolving 
complaints of discrimination and in providing minorities access to 
programs. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 authorized 
the creation of the position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights 
(ASCR), giving USDA an executive that could provide leadership for 
resolving these long-standing problems. 

This testimony focuses on USDA�s efforts to (1) resolve discrimination 
complaints, (2) report on minority participation in USDA programs, and 
(3) strategically plan its efforts. This testimony is based on new and 
prior work, including analysis of ASCR�s strategic plan; discrimination 
complaint management; and about 120 interviews with officials of USDA 
and other federal agencies, as well as 20 USDA stakeholder groups. 

USDA officials reviewed the facts upon which this statement is based, 
and we incorporated their additions and clarifications as appropriate. 
GAO plans a future report with recommendations. 

What GAO Found: 

ASCR�s difficulties in resolving discrimination complaints persist�ASCR 
has not achieved its goal of preventing future backlogs of complaints. 
At a basic level, the credibility of USDA�s efforts has been and 
continues to be undermined by ASCR�s faulty reporting of data on 
discrimination complaints and disparities in ASCR�s data. Even such 
basic information as the number of complaints is subject to wide 
variation in ASCR�s reports to the public and the Congress. Moreover, 
ASCR�s public claim in July 2007 that it had successfully reduced a 
backlog of about 690 discrimination complaints in fiscal year 2004 and 
held its caseload to manageable levels, drew a questionable portrait of 
progress. By July 2007, ASCR officials were well aware they had not 
succeeded in preventing future backlogs�they had another backlog on 
hand, and this time the backlog had surged to an even higher level of 
885 complaints. In fact, ASCR officials were in the midst of planning 
to hire additional attorneys to address that backlog of complaints 
including some ASCR was holding dating from the early 2000s that it had 
not resolved. In addition, some steps ASCR had taken may have actually 
been counter-productive and affected the quality of its work. For 
example, an ASCR official stated that some employees� complaints had 
been addressed without resolving basic questions of fact, raising 
concerns about the integrity of the practice. Importantly, ASCR does 
not have a plan to correct these many problems. 

USDA has published three annual reports�for fiscal years 2003, 2004, 
and 2005�on the participation of minority farmers and ranchers in USDA 
programs, as required by law. USDA�s reports are intended to reveal the 
gains or losses that these farmers have experienced in their 
participation in USDA programs. However, USDA considers the data it has 
reported to be unreliable because they are based on USDA employees� 
visual observations about participant�s race and ethnicity, which may 
or may not be correct, especially for ethnicity. USDA needs the 
approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to collect more 
reliable data. ASCR started to seek OMB�s approval in 2004, but as of 
May 2008 had not followed through to obtain approval. ASCR staff will 
meet again on this matter in May 2008. 

GAO found that ASCR�s strategic planning is limited and does not 
address key steps needed to achieve the Office�s mission of ensuring 
USDA provides fair and equitable services to all customers and upholds 
the civil rights of its employees. For example, a key step in strategic 
planning is to discuss the perspectives of stakeholders. ASCR�s 
strategic planning does not address the diversity of USDA�s field staff 
even though ASCR�s stakeholders told GAO that such diversity would 
facilitate interaction with minority and underserved farmers. Also, 
ASCR could better measure performance to gauge its progress in 
achieving its mission. For example, it counts the number of 
participants in training workshops as part of its outreach efforts 
rather than access to farm program benefits and services. Finally, 
ASCR�s strategic planning does not link levels of funding with 
anticipated results or discuss the potential for using performance 
information for identifying USDA�s performance gaps. 

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click on 
[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-08-755T]. For more 
information, contact Lisa Shames at (202) 512-2649 or [email protected] 

[End of section] 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here today to discuss the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture's (USDA) progress in addressing long-standing civil rights 
issues. My comments today are based on prior work as well as new work 
nearing completion resulting from a request from Senator Harkin, 
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and 
Forestry; Senators Grassley and Lugar; and Chairman Baca of the 
Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, and 
Forestry, House Committee on Agriculture; as well as you, Chairman 
Towns. 

USDA is responsible for enforcing statutes, regulations, and policies 
that prohibit discrimination in its programs and workplace. USDA's 
responsibilities extend to the programs that it delivers directly to 
customers through local offices throughout the country, such as the 
farm loan programs, as well as to programs that USDA and the states 
administer jointly, such as the Food Stamp Program. USDA's workplace 
civil rights responsibilities cover about 100,000 employees at 
headquarters and at USDA offices around the country. 

For decades, USDA has been the focus of federal inquiries into 
allegations of discrimination against minorities and women both in the 
programs it administers and in its workforce. Numerous reports and 
congressional testimony by officials of the U.S. Commission on Civil 
Rights, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, USDA, GAO, 
and others have described extensive concerns about discriminatory 
behavior in USDA's delivery of services to program customers--in 
particular, minority farmers--and its treatment of minority employees. 
Many of these reports and testimonies described serious weaknesses in 
USDA's management of its civil rights programs--in particular, 
weaknesses in providing minorities access to USDA programs and in 
resolving discrimination complaints. 

Notable among these many reports was the 1997 report of the Secretary 
of Agriculture's Civil Rights Action Team.[Footnote 1] The Secretary's 
team--composed of senior USDA officials--held a dozen "listening 
sessions" with USDA customers and employees throughout the country 
before issuing a report. The team's report discussed USDA's customers' 
and employees' concerns about patterns of discrimination in USDA 
programs and operations, and minority farmers' concerns that USDA had 
played a part in the severe decline in minority farm ownership since 
the mid-1900s. Among other things, the report noted that USDA's civil 
rights program had been in a "persistent state of chaos" because of 
numerous changes since the 1980s and declared that USDA's process for 
resolving complaints about the delivery of program benefits and 
services was a "failure." The report made many recommendations in four 
major areas--organizational structure, management commitment, program 
delivery and outreach, and workforce diversity and employment 
practices. 

In addition to reports about USDA's civil rights shortcomings, 
individuals and groups claiming discriminatory behavior on the part of 
USDA have sought redress through the courts--USDA has been and 
continues to be involved in large class action civil rights lawsuits. 
[Footnote 2] In 1997, three African-American farmers, on behalf of 
themselves and others similarly situated, filed a lawsuit-- Pigford v. 
Glickman--that charged USDA with discrimination in the department's 
lending and other farm programs between 1983 and 1997, as well as with 
failure to properly investigate discrimination complaints.[Footnote 3] 
The case went forward as a class action, and in January 1999 a 
settlement agreement was announced. In approving the consent decree 
settling the case, the court stated that for decades USDA had 
discriminated against African-American farmers by denying or delaying 
their applications for farm loan and other credit and benefit programs. 
The court also noted that USDA had disbanded its Office of Civil Rights 
in 1983 and stopped responding to claims of discrimination. The consent 
decree established a mechanism for members of the class to file claims 
to obtain relief. Over 97,000 people have filed claims--more than five 
times the number of claims anticipated. However, only about 23,000 
people met the filing deadline of October 12, 1999, and about 74,000 
people requested permission from the court to file a claim after the 
deadline. Except for a relatively few extraordinary cases, the court 
denied the claims received after the filing deadline as not timely. 
Overall, as of April 7, 2008, more than 15,400 claims had been approved 
for payments and benefits totaling about $972 million, and almost 7,000 
claims had been denied.[Footnote 4] In addition, USDA is currently 
defending itself against similar lawsuits brought by other customers--
Native American, Hispanic, and women farmers--alleging discrimination 
in the delivery of farm programs and lending.[Footnote 5] 

A congressional hearing during 2002 focused on the need for USDA to 
ensure that, among other things, farm programs are accessible to 
minority and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, complaints of 
discrimination against USDA by customers and employees are resolved 
fairly and timely, and civil rights activities are conducted 
transparently so that public scrutiny is possible. That year, as you 
know, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (2002 Farm 
Bill) authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to create the new 
position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, elevating 
responsibility within USDA for carrying out USDA's civil rights 
efforts. Under the 2002 Farm Bill, the Secretary could delegate 
responsibility for ensuring that USDA complies with all civil rights- 
related laws and considers civil rights matters in all USDA strategic 
planning initiatives to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. In 
2003, the Assistant Secretary position was created with these and other 
delegated responsibilities, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary 
for Civil Rights (ASCR) was established. In addition, the 2002 Farm 
Bill requires USDA to report annually on minority participation in USDA 
programs.[Footnote 6] 

In 2002, we reported that USDA's Office of Civil Rights continued to 
face significant problems in processing discrimination complaints in a 
timely manner.[Footnote 7] We reported that the office had made only 
modest progress in processing complaints from customers and employees 
because (1) it had not established time frames for resolving complaints 
and (2) it had not addressed its severe human capital problems. For 
example, the office had long-standing problems in hiring and retaining 
staff with the right mix of skills, and severe morale problems were 
exacerbating problems with staff productivity and retention. At that 
time, we recommended that USDA establish time frames for all stages of 
the complaint process and develop an action plan to address its staff 
turnover and morale problems. In commenting on the report, USDA stated 
that it had a long-term improvement plan that would address the human 
capital problems and agreed to formalize time frames for all phases of 
the process. 

My testimony today focuses on (1) ASCR's continuing problems in 
resolving discrimination complaints, (2) USDA's reporting on minority 
participation in USDA programs, and (3) ASCR's strategic planning for 
ensuring USDA's services and benefits are provided fairly and 
equitably. 

In summary, I would like to make three observations. First, ASCR's 
difficulties in resolving discrimination complaints persist--ASCR has 
not achieved its goal of preventing future backlogs of discrimination 
complaints. At a basic level, the credibility of USDA's efforts to 
correct long-standing problems in resolving discrimination complaints 
has been and continues to be undermined by faulty reporting of data on 
discrimination complaints and disparities we found when comparing 
various ASCR sources of data. Even such basic information as the number 
of discrimination complaints is subject to wide variation in ASCR's 
reports to the public and the Congress. For example, fiscal year 2005 
data that ASCR reported to the public and to this congressional 
subcommittee varied by hundreds of complaint cases, and data reported 
to GAO on its complaint cases varied from one report to another. 
Moreover, ASCR's public claim in July 2007 that it had successfully 
reduced a backlog of about 690 discrimination complaints in fiscal year 
2004 and held its caseload to manageable levels drew a questionable 
portrait of progress. By July 2007, ASCR officials were well aware the 
plan to prevent future backlogs had not succeeded. ASCR had another 
backlog on hand, and this time the backlog had surged to an even higher 
level of 885 complaints. In fact, before ASCR made its report to the 
public in 2007, ASCR officials were in the midst of planning to hire 
additional attorneys to address the backlog of complaints, including 
some complaints that ASCR was holding dating from the early 2000s that 
it had not resolved. In addition, steps that ASCR had taken to speed up 
its investigations and decisions on complaints may actually have been 
counter-productive and affected the quality of its work. For example, 
an ASCR official stated that some employees' complaints had been 
addressed without resolving basic questions of fact, raising concerns 
about the integrity of the practice. Importantly, ASCR does not have a 
plan to correct these many problems. 

Second, the data that USDA reported to the Congress and the public on 
the participation of minority farmers in USDA programs are unreliable, 
according to USDA. USDA has published three annual reports on the 
participation of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in USDA 
programs for fiscal years 2003, 2004, and 2005. However, much of the 
data that USDA reports are unreliable, according to the statements in 
USDA's reports, because USDA's data on racial identity and gender are, 
for the most part, based on visual observation of program applicants. 
Data gathered in this manner are considered unreliable because 
individual traits such as race and ethnicity may not be readily 
apparent to an observer, especially ethnicity. To address this inherent 
shortcoming, according to USDA's report, the agency needs standardized 
data collection directly from program participants, which requires the 
approval of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). ASCR began the 
process of seeking OMB's approval to collect these data in 2004, but 
did not follow through and has not obtained final approval. ASCR staff 
will meet again on this matter in May 2008. In addition, we found the 
data in ASCR's reports to be of limited usefulness because, for 
example, ASCR did not include basic reference data such as the numbers 
of farmers in each county. Moreover, the data do not facilitate 
analysis because they are published in about 1,370 separate tables and 
146 maps that are not searchable files. If the data were searchable, it 
could be possible to more easily compare minority participation by 
program, location, and year. 

Finally, ASCR's strategic planning is limited and does not address key 
steps needed to achieve its mission. While ASCR has articulated a 
compelling strategic goal--to ensure USDA provides fair and equitable 
services to all customers and upholds the civil rights of its 
employees--its implementation will require further development. For 
example, a key step in strategic planning is to discuss the 
perspectives of stakeholders. Yet, ASCR's plans vary from ASCR's 
stakeholders' interests which include such things as improving USDA's 
methods of delivering farm programs to facilitate access by under- 
served producers. Also, while ASCR's stakeholders are interested in 
assuring the diversity of USDA field office staff to facilitate their 
interaction with minority and underserved farmers, ASCR's strategic 
planning does not address the diversity of USDA's field staff. In 
addition, ASCR could better measure performance to gauge its progress, 
and ASCR has not started to use performance information for identifying 
USDA performance gaps. 

We provided USDA officials with an opportunity to comment on a 
statement of facts which was the basis for my statement today. We 
incorporated their additions and clarifications as appropriate. We plan 
to issue a final report later in 2008 that will include recommendations 
to address the matters that I discuss in my testimony today. 

This testimony is based on new and previously issued work. To assess 
ASCR's efforts to resolve USDA's persistent problems in handling 
discrimination complaints, we conducted interviews with officials of 
ASCR, USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG), USDA's agency-level 
civil rights offices, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; 
examined USDA documents about efforts to resolve discrimination 
complaints, and analyzed data provided by ASCR. To evaluate USDA's 
reporting on minority participation in USDA's programs, we reviewed 
USDA reports and interviewed officials of USDA, community-based 
organizations, and minority groups. To analyze ASCR's strategic 
planning, we examined ASCR's strategic plan and other relevant planning 
documents, and interviewed USDA officials and representatives of 
community-based organizations and minority groups, among others. In 
addition, we considered GAO's guidance for results-oriented management. 
We conducted our work from December 2006 through May 2008, in 
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. These 
standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain 
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our 
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. While our 
efforts were impeded by delays in gaining access to documents, we 
believe the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our 
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. Additional 
details on our scope, methodology, and access to USDA records is 
included in appendix I. 

Background: 

The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (ASCR) was 
created in 2003. For fiscal year 2007, ASCR had 129 staff and an annual 
budget of about $24 million. ASCR is composed of multiple offices, some 
of which were in existence within USDA prior to the creation of ASCR. 

Figure 1: Organization of USDA's Office of the Assistant Secretary for 
Civil Rights: 

[See PDF for image] 

This figure is an organizational chart depicting the following 
hierarchy: 

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights: 
* Deputy Assistant Secretary; 
* Associate Assistant Secretary; 
- Planning and Performance; 
- Budget and Finance; 
- Coordination and Analysis; 
* Office of Adjudication and Compliance; 
* Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center; 
* Office of Outreach and Diversity. 

Source: USDA. 

[End of figure] 

ASCR's Office of Adjudication and Compliance (formerly the Office of 
Civil Rights) is to resolve customers' and employees' complaints of 
discrimination and to conduct civil rights compliance reviews of USDA's 
agencies. The Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center is to provide 
guidance to USDA agencies on using Alternative Dispute Resolution 
methods to resolve conflicts. The Office of Outreach and Diversity is 
to develop ASCR's diversity initiatives, and oversee the 1890 and 1994 
Programs. The 1890 Program offers educational scholarships to people 
seeking degrees at one of the 18 historically black land-grant 
institutions and requires one year of USDA service for each year of 
financial support. Similarly, through the 1994 Program, there is a 
comparable program operated with the 33 tribal colleges and 
universities designated as 1994 land-grant institutions. Within the 
Office of Outreach and Diversity, the Office of Outreach is to provide 
coordination for USDA agencies on outreach efforts and produce a 
required annual report on the rates at which minorities participate in 
USDA programs. 

The first USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights-Mr. Vernon Parker-
was sworn in on April 1, 2003, and served about 3 years until resigning 
in January 2006. At the outset of Mr. Parker's tenure, over a 4 month 
period, a few ASCR staff developed 13 initiatives to guide ASCR's 
actions through fiscal year 2004 and beyond. These initiatives were 
intended to address the most immediate problems occurring at the time 
and concentrated on eliminating backlogs of unresolved discrimination 
complaints and taking certain steps to reduce complaints in the future. 
Most notably, ASCR established annual "Partners Meetings" to create, 
for the first time, a substantive and ongoing dialogue between USDA and 
representatives of community-based organizations as a basis for 
improving the delivery of USDA benefits and services. A list of ASCR's 
initiatives for fiscal year 2004 is included in appendix II. The second 
and current Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights--Ms. Margo McKay--was 
sworn in on August 21, 2006. A list of Assistant Secretary McKay's 
priorities and initiatives are also included in appendix II. 

Problems Resolving Discrimination Complaints Persist: 

The credibility of USDA's efforts to correct long-standing problems in 
resolving discrimination complaints has been and continues to be 
undermined by faulty reporting of data on discrimination complaints and 
disparities we found when comparing various ASCR sources of data. 
[Footnote 8] For example, fiscal year 2005 data that ASCR reported to 
the public and to this congressional subcommittee varied by hundreds of 
complaint cases, and data reported to GAO on its complaint cases varied 
from one report to another. Moreover, ASCR's public claim in July 2007 
that it successfully reduced a backlog of about 690 discrimination 
complaints in fiscal year 2004 and held its caseload to manageable 
levels through fiscal year 2005 drew a questionable portrait of 
progress. By July 2007, ASCR officials were well aware that the plan to 
prevent future backlogs had not succeeded. ASCR had another backlog on 
hand, and this time the backlog had surged to an even higher level of 
885 complaints. In fact, before ASCR made its report to the public in 
2007, ASCR officials were in the midst of planning to hire attorneys to 
address the backlog of complaints, including some complaints that ASCR 
was holding dating from the early 2000s that it had not resolved. In 
addition, some steps that ASCR had taken to speed up its investigations 
and decisions on complaints appear to have affected the quality of its 
work. These on-going problems are a continuation of the inadequate 
conditions that we and USDA's OIG have reported for over a decade. 

ASCR reporting on backlogs of discrimination complaints has been faulty 
and contains disparities. When ASCR was created, there was an existing 
backlog of complaints. In recognition of this problem, USDA's Assistant 
Secretary for Civil Rights made discrimination complaint inventory 
reduction ASCR's highest priority initiative. This initiative called 
for ASCR's senior managers and employees to make a concerted 12-month, 
$1.5 million effort to reduce the backlog of complaints that they had 
inherited. Moreover, according to a briefing book ASCR prepared for the 
Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, this 
complaint inventory reduction initiative was to put lasting 
improvements in place to prevent future complaint backlogs. It also 
stated that USDA's Office of Civil Rights would focus substantial 
resources on fair, equitable, and legally supportable resolution of 
cases. 

About 4 years later, in July 2007, ASCR released a report to the public 
stating that its fiscal year 2004 backlog reduction initiative was a 
success.[Footnote 9] The report stated that the backlog of 573 
complaints from employees and 120 complaints from customers had been 
resolved, and that ASCR had held the complaint inventory to manageable 
levels through fiscal year 2005. However, the data ASCR reported lack 
credibility because a month earlier the Office had reported different 
data to this congressional subcommittee (see Table 1). Specifically, 
according to the June report, the numbers of complaints at the 
beginning of fiscal year 2005 was 552; according to the July report, 
the number was 363. Moreover, the June report cited the number of 
complaints at the end of fiscal year 2005 as 1,275, and the July report 
said it was 404. The lower numbers reported to the public were not 
qualified and provided a more favorable impression than the data 
reported to this subcommittee. However, the Assistant Secretary's 
letter transmitting data to the subcommittee contained a footnote 
qualification stating that USDA's statistics on customers' complaints 
were the best available, although they were incomplete and unreliable. 
Before that letter was sent, ASCR's former Director, Office of 
Adjudication and Compliance[Footnote 10] (former Office of Civil 
Rights), who had responsibility for the data, cautioned the Assistant 
Secretary about the poor data quality and stated that, if questioned, 
USDA would not be able to explain its data. 

Table 1: Fiscal Year 2005 Customer Complaint Inventory as Reported by 
ASCR in June and July 2007: 

Number of complaints: At the beginning of FY 2005; 
Report to congressional subcommittee, June 2007[A]: 552; 
USDA's 1,000 Days Report, July 2007[B]: 363. 

Number of complaints: At the end of FY 2005; 
Report to congressional subcommittee, June 2007[A]: 1,275; 
USDA's 1,000 Days Report, July 2007[B]: 404. 

Number of complaints: Resolved during FY 2005; 
Report to congressional subcommittee, June 2007[A]: N/A[C]; 
USDA's 1,000 Days Report, July 2007[B]: 120. 

[A] Letter of Margo M. McKay, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, 
USDA, to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Government Management, 
Organization, and Procurement, House Committee on Oversight and 
Government Reform, June 29, 2007. 

[B] USDA, First 1,000 Days, 2003-2006 (Washington, D.C.: July 2007). 

[C] As reported by USDA, without explanation. 

[End of table] 

Moreover, ASCR's July 2007 report claiming success in addressing the 
backlog of complaints is questionable because at least 2 months 
earlier, officials of ASCR and USDA's Office of General Counsel (USDA 
OGC) had started discussing a plan of "triage" to address a backlog of 
complaints by hiring additional attorneys to draft final decisions on 
those cases. Also, in July 2007, the Assistant Secretary for Civil 
Rights informed us that she was to brief the Secretary on her plan to 
reduce that backlog, but was not comfortable sharing the plan with GAO. 
We later learned that ASCR had identified a backlog of 885 customer and 
employee discrimination complaints, according to ASCR data. 
Furthermore, while claiming success, ASCR was holding old complaints 
from customers that it had not resolved. ASCR data show, for example, 
that it had 46 complaints dating from 2002 and before, which remained 
open at least until August 2007.[Footnote 11] 

Based on our interviews, we attribute the growth of the latest backlog 
to the lack of adequate management controls and vigilance. In December 
2006, we asked ASCR's former Director, Office of Adjudication and 
Compliance, to provide us with management reports on the status of 
discrimination complaint cases. The former Director stated that she had 
no such management reports; that management reports on customer 
complaints were not required by law; and that since a backlog had been 
addressed in 2004, she was confident that the handling of complaints 
since then had been timely. However, according to a briefing document 
that ASCR used within USDA: 

* The inventory of customer complaints had grown from 552 cases to 
1,356 cases from the end of fiscal year 2004 to the end of fiscal year 
2007. ASCR identified 395 customer complaints as backlogged. 

* The inventory of employee complaints stood at 1,444 cases and 1,306 
cases at the end of fiscal years 2004 and 2007, respectively. ASCR 
identified 490 employee complaints as backlogged. 

To address the customers' complaints, in August 2007 USDA contracted 
for six attorneys to draft final agency decisions and expected that 
this effort would be completed by the end of 2007. To address the 
employees' complaints, USDA anticipated using these attorneys and to 
contract with the U.S. Postal Service as well, expecting that these 
cases would be completed by the end of fiscal year 2008. 

ASCR's tardy case processing of certain customer complaints may prevent 
USDA from compensating a farmer even though USDA may find sufficient 
evidence of discrimination. This is because USDA believes it cannot 
settle certain claims filed with USDA once a 2-year period for filing 
in federal court has expired if the individual did not also file their 
claim in federal court, and regardless of whether the individual timely 
filed their claim with USDA.[Footnote 12] We are aware of one such case 
in which USDA found discrimination in 2005, but the farmer has not 
received a compensatory damage payment from USDA because the 2-year 
period for filing in federal court had expired. In addition, even 
though USDA's final decision on the case stated that the farmer's 1997 
farm loan debt would be forgiven, a USDA official informed us that has 
not yet occurred. 

In addition, an ASCR document identified 92 cases that were being held 
in abeyance--that is, ASCR had set these cases aside from receiving a 
final decision on the merits because the complainant is, or could be, a 
member of a class action lawsuit. If these cases are not certified as 
class actions, then ASCR will consider each complaint individually. Of 
the 92 cases, 58 appear to be complaints involving farm program 
litigation. 

* 31 cases were classified as Keepseagle-related cases filed with USDA 
between November 1996 and January 2003. The Keepseagle case was filed 
in November 1999 and is certified as a class action case. 

* 25 cases were classified as Garcia-related cases filed with USDA 
between March 1991 and January 2006. The Garcia case was filed in 
October 2000. 

* 2 cases were classified as Love-related cases filed with USDA in 
1997. The Love case was filed in October 2000. 

We also identified one active discrimination complaint filed in 1990, 
18 years ago. This complaint involves the American Indians of the Fort 
Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.[Footnote 13] USDA investigated 
this case of alleged discrimination in farm lending in 1999. The lead 
complainant has requested USDA action many times, and in March 2008, a 
USDA administrative law judge approved this case for a decision. The 
judge has scheduled a June 2008 hearing on compensation, should he find 
in favor of the complainants. 

Data ASCR provided contains additional disparities. In addition to its 
reporting to the Congress and the public, we identified other instances 
of disparities in the data reported by ASCR on its inventories of 
customer complaints, as illustrated in the following two tables. Table 
2 shows that ASCR reported case resolution data differently to us than 
it did in an internal departmental briefing document 5 months later. 
Specifically, for fiscal year 2006, data we were given showed 290 
complaints were resolved, while an internal briefing showed 991. 
Disparities were evident in the earlier fiscal years as well. Table 3 
shows disparities in the dates of 10 discrimination complaint cases 
that ASCR provided us on two occasions. For example, in case number 7, 
data we were given first indicated that the case was open in May 2003, 
and subsequent data indicated 1998 or 1999, a 4-or 5-year variance. 

Table 2: USDA Customers' Complaints of Discrimination Resolved by ASCR, 
Fiscal Years 2004 through 2006: 

FY 2004: 
Data provided to GAO August 2007: 953; 
USDA briefing document January 2008: 1,561. 

FY 2005: 
Data provided to GAO August 2007: 258; 
USDA briefing document January 2008: N/A[A]. 

FY 2006: 
Data provided to GAO August 2007: 290; 
USDA briefing document January 2008: 991. 

Sources: ASCR data provided to GAO in August 2007 and an ASCR briefing 
document of January 2008. 

[A] As reported by USDA, without explanation. 

[End of table] 

Table 3: Examples of Variations in Opening Dates of Customers' 
Discrimination Complaint Cases Provided by ASCR to GAO: 

Case number assigned by GAO: 1; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: December 2005; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: March 1991; 
Variance: 14 years; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 17 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 2; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: [A]; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: November 1996; 
Variance: [A]; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 11 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 3; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: [A]; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: February 1998; 
Variance: [A]; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 10 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 4; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: [A]; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: October 1998; 
Variance: [A]; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 10 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 5; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: [A]; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: October 1998; 
Variance: [A]; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 10 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 6; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: [A]; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: October 1998; 
Variance: [A]; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 10 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 7; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: May 2003; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: 1998-1999; 
Variance: 4-5 years; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 9 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 8; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: September 2001; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: October 2000; 
Variance: 11 months; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 7 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 9; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: June 2003; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: June 2001; 
Variance: 2 years; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 6 years. 

Case number assigned by GAO: 10; 
Opening date reported to GAO in August 2007: April 2003; 
Opening date reported to GAO in January 2008: July 2002; 
Variance: 11 months; 
Case age based on January 2008 data: 5 years. 

Source: Data provided by USDA. 

Note: These cases are being held in abeyance by USDA (not being 
resolved at this time) because they have been associated with a class 
action lawsuit, or a potential class action lawsuit. 

[A] No data on this case were provided in August 2007. 

[End of table] 

ASCR officials and staff recognize that the data they use are 
unreliable. They provided us with examples of known data inaccuracies, 
including (1) data that are being transferred into the new ASCR 
database, which is intended to address the existing data management 
problems, and (2) data that USDA reports to the Equal Employment 
Opportunity Commission on employees' complaints. Other ASCR officials 
and staff told us that erroneous data had been migrated to the new 
database, and start-up problems with the new system have further 
contributed to data inaccuracies. Furthermore, ASCR staff reported that 
occasionally customers' case files cannot be readily found, the files 
are missing documents, and sometimes the files contain documents that 
pertain to other cases. Nevertheless, while correspondence from the 
former Director, Office of Adjudication and Compliance, to USDA's OIG 
said that only verified data were entered into the new system to 
prevent "garbage in, garbage out," USDA's OIG reported that ASCR had 
not implemented a process to validate the accuracy of its data and did 
not have sufficient controls over the entry and validation of data into 
its new system. 

Steps ASCR took to speed up its work affected quality. We found that as 
ASCR accelerated the pace of its work to reduce its backlogs of 
discrimination complaints in 2004, it took steps may have affected the 
quality of its work. First, ASCR's plan to accelerate its work did not 
address how the quality of its work would be maintained. 

* ASCR's plan called for USDA's investigators and adjudicators, who 
prepare agency decisions, to nearly double their normal pace of 
casework for about 12 months. For example, ASCR's investigators were 
expected to increase their productivity from about 16 to 30 cases per 
year. 

* One technique that ASCR adopted was to have its investigators conduct 
interviews and interrogatories by phone and email whenever possible. 
Civil rights investigative standards indicate that interviews by 
telephone are acceptable under certain circumstances, such as when 
there is good reason to conclude that the complainant is the only 
person affected by the allegations of discrimination.[Footnote 14] ASCR 
employees told us that it is now usual for ASCR investigations to be 
conducted by phone. 

* Another feature called for one employee to respond to about 3,000 
"claims and inquiries" submitted as a result of a letter writing 
campaign. However, the plan did not make clear what procedures ASCR 
staff were to use for reviewing and responding to these cases or the 
quality controls that were to be applied. ASCR employees reported to us 
that an unknown portion of these claims and inquiries were either lost 
or disregarded. 

Second, ASCR's former Director, Office of Adjudication and Compliance, 
commented in writing on the quality of USDA's work on employees' 
complaints in fiscal year 2004. The former Director stated that 
contractors' work in preparing draft decisions was fair to average and 
required much revision. In addition, the former Director related that 
USDA issued many "summary" decisions on employees' complaints that did 
not resolve questions of fact, leading to the appeal of many USDA 
decisions to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The former 
Director expressed concern that such summary decisions by USDA "could 
call into question the integrity of the process because important 
issues were being overlooked." 

Finally, as in the past, inadequate working relationships and 
communications within ASCR have complicated its efforts to produce 
quality work products, and adversely affected employees. According to 
ASCR documents and our interviews, instability in ASCR's civil rights 
offices resulting from reorganizations, management and staff turnover, 
low morale, and concerns about the treatment of staff in ASCR's civil 
rights offices have been a serious obstacle to improving the management 
of these programs. Over the past 5 years, many complaints of 
discrimination have been filed against ASCR program managers and 
officials. In addition, some staff have feared retaliation for 
reporting program and management related problems, or for raising 
questions about management actions. 

USDA's OIG and GAO have long reported on problems in resolving 
discrimination complaints. USDA's stated policy is to efficiently 
respond to discrimination complaints, but over the past years it has 
not done so. USDA's OIG and GAO have together invested heavily in 
reporting on and developing recommendations to overcome USDA's untimely 
handling of discrimination complaints. In 1999, for example, while we 
reported that USDA had exceeded four target dates for closing backlogs 
of customers' complaints and three for employees' complaints, we made 
recommendations to address USDA's continual management turnover in 
civil rights offices, frequent reorganizations, inadequate staff and 
managerial expertise, and poor working relationships and communication 
within the Office of Civil Rights.[Footnote 15] USDA management agreed 
with these reports and committed to implement our recommendations. 

However, by 2000, USDA's OIG stated that it was making its seventh 
attempt to provide USDA's Office of Civil Rights with constructive ways 
to overcome its case processing inefficiencies.[Footnote 16] The OIG 
also stated that officials of the Office of Civil Rights had agreed to 
a major transformation of the system for processing complaints, but, in 
fact, the office did not make any significant changes. The OIG stated 
that unless the Office of Civil Rights provided effective leadership, 
changed the organizational culture, and addressed its customer focus 
and process engineering, it would be questionable whether further 
complaints of discrimination would receive due care. In 2002, USDA 
officials again committed to setting and meeting time frames for 
processing discrimination complaints. In 2003, we identified the 
processing of discrimination complaints as a significant management 
challenge for USDA.[Footnote 17] Four years later, in August 2007, 
USDA's OIG designated civil rights as a major management challenge at 
USDA.[Footnote 18] The OIG commented that because of the conditions it 
had found, public confidence in USDA's upholding of civil rights might 
be lost. 

In addition, in 2007, USDA's OIG reported that material weaknesses 
persisted in ASCR's civil rights control structure and environment for 
processing employees' discrimination complaints.[Footnote 19] The OIG 
found that although USDA's Office of Civil Rights had reduced the 
average time for processing employees' complaints, the average exceeded 
the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's standard of 270 days. 
According to the OIG, 67 cases took, on average, over 500 days, which 
the OIG considered to be representative of cases in which ASCR had to 
issue a decision on the merits of the complaint. In addition, the OIG 
reported that: 

* 13 of the 64 case files that the OIG selected to review could not be 
located for a month; one required 6 months to locate; and one had to be 
recreated; 

* 21 of the 64 case files had missing documentation; and: 

* 11 of the 64 cases had incorrect data recorded in ASCR's database, 
including one case in which the complainant was incorrectly identified 
as white rather than African-American. 

ASCR's former Director, Office of Adjudication and Compliance, 
responded that there were several causes for these conditions: the 
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission standards were unrealistic, 
there was a substantial backlog of cases, there had been an influx of 
new cases, there were staffing and resource shortages, and individual 
USDA agencies were not meeting their responsibilities. ASCR's former 
Director also claimed that these weaknesses in resolving employees' 
discrimination complaints would be addressed in 5 years. However, the 
OIG observed that ASCR did not have an effective plan to get this done. 

ASCR's Reports on Minority Participation in Programs Are Unreliable and 
of Limited Usefulness: 

ASCR has published three annual reports on the participation rate of 
socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in USDA programs, which are 
required by section 10708 of the 2002 Farm Bill.[Footnote 20] Over 
time, these reports could help make more transparent the progress made 
by socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in accessing USDA 
programs. However, as USDA discloses in these reports, the data USDA 
has reported are statistically unreliable. In addition, our analysis of 
the USDA reports shows that they do not include basic reference data 
needed for understanding the reports and examining trends. 

The reports are to provide statistical data on the participation of 
farmers and ranchers in USDA programs by race, ethnicity, and gender, 
and in addition, USDA has included descriptions of its success stories 
in providing outreach and assistance to socially disadvantaged farmers 
and ranchers. USDA has stated that through these reports, it intends to 
make clear that it is committed to and accountable for fair and 
equitable service to all customers. However, the statistical data USDA 
reports on program participation are unreliable. USDA stated that it 
does not have a uniform method of reporting and tabulating race and 
ethnicity data among its component agencies. More specifically, 
according to USDA, it does not have approval from OMB to implement 
standardized data collection of demographic information directly from 
program participants. For example, according to USDA, the Cooperative 
State Research, Education, and Extension Service; the Rural Business 
and Cooperative Service; and the Risk Management Agency are not 
authorized to collect race and ethnicity data for 18 programs. USDA 
reported that only the Farm Service Agencies' farm loan program 
collects reliable and complete information on socially disadvantaged 
farmers and ranchers. Except for the data of the Farm Service Agency, 
most of USDA's demographic data are gathered by visual observation of 
the applicants, and USDA states in its reports that it considers visual 
observation to be unreliable, especially for ethnicity. Individual 
traits, such as ethnicity, may not be readily evident to an observer. 
In addition, for some Farm Service Agency programs, applicants who 
chose not to identify their race were, until 2004, designated as "white 
male." When taken together, according to USDA, the mixture of data 
available for reporting is statistically unreliable. 

In 2004, to overcome these conditions, ASCR published a notice in the 
Federal Register seeking public comment on its plan to collect 
additional data on race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, and age. 
While ASCR received some public comments, it did not follow through and 
obtain OMB's approval to collect the data. In a January 2008 briefing 
document, an ASCR work group stated that ASCR does not have the staff 
or financial resources to proceed with this project. On May 8, 2008, 
ASCR officials said that they plan to meet again in the near future to 
further discuss this matter. 

In addition, our analysis of these USDA reports shows that they are of 
limited usefulness because they do not include the basic reference data 
needed for understanding the reports and examining trends. USDA has 
published its demographic data as the percentage of program 
participants by county and state. While observers can track the 
percentage changes in program participation over time, the data are of 
limited usefulness without knowing the actual number of program 
participants and the census data for each county and state. For 
example, USDA would now report that in a particular county, 20 percent 
of the farm program participants were minority farmers and 80 percent 
were nonminority farmers. Greater insight would be provided if USDA 
also reported that there were 100 program participants in the county-- 
the report reader would then know that 20 were minority program 
participants. Further insight would be provided if USDA reported from 
census data that in this county, 125 of the 1,000 farmers were minority 
farmers. By including census data, USDA could also facilitate the 
observation of population shifts along with changes in program 
participation. Furthermore, USDA's Web-based tables that contain data 
on program participation do not facilitate analysis. USDA publishes its 
data in about 1,370 separate tables and 146 maps that are not 
searchable files. Because the underlying data are not searchable, 
readers cannot make simple comparisons that would enhance data 
interpretation. If the data were searchable, it could be possible to 
compare minority participation by program, geographic location, and 
year. 

Finally, a section of the report includes highlights of 16 USDA 
agencies' efforts to reach out to minority and socially disadvantaged 
farmers. While these highlights provide useful perspective on agency 
activities to serve socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, the 
information is somewhat limited because the many positive agency 
activities are reported as anecdotes, which do not reveal the full 
extent of USDA agency outreach activities. The following examples 
illustrate USDA's reporting of its outreach efforts for fiscal year 
2005. 

* Farm Bill Forums. USDA reported that in anticipation of the 2007 Farm 
Bill, the Office of Outreach assisted with planning and conducting 
"listening sessions" in various locations with minority farmers and 
ranchers. 

* Partners Meetings. USDA reported that a second annual partners 
meeting was held in August 2005. The meeting provided opportunities for 
more than 125 representatives of community-based organizations for 
farmers and ranchers to engage with USDA officials about issues that 
affect the continued well-being of the minority and small farm and 
ranch community. 

* The Tobacco Buyout Program. USDA reported that a comprehensive 
multimedia campaign was conducted to inform tobacco quota holders and 
farmers of the buyout program, and to encourage them to sign up for the 
buyout program. The Office of Outreach participated in the design of 
communication strategies to help ensure that small and limited-resource 
producers received accurate information about the buyout in a timely 
manner and the office also called attention to the need to promote 
financial investment planning and transitioning to alternative crops. 

ASCR's Strategic Planning Is Limited and Does Not Address Key Steps 
Needed to Achieve Its Mission: 

In light of USDA's history involving significantly controversial 
issues, including allegations of systemic discrimination against USDA 
customers carried out through the design and delivery of USDA programs 
as well as discriminatory treatment of USDA employees, strategic 
planning is vital for providing proactive ASCR leadership. Results- 
oriented strategic planning provides a roadmap that clearly describes 
what an organization is attempting to achieve, and over time, it can 
serve as a focal point for communication with the Congress and the 
public about what has been accomplished. Results-oriented organizations 
follow three key steps in their strategic planning: (1) they define a 
clear mission and desired outcomes, (2) they measure performance to 
gauge progress, and (3) they use performance information for 
identifying performance gaps and decision making to hone the strategic 
plan. Taken together, ASCR has started to develop a results-oriented 
approach as illustrated in its first strategic plan entitled Assistant 
Secretary for Civil Rights: Strategic Plan, Fiscal Years 2005-2010 and 
its ASCR Priorities for Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008. The elements of 
these plans are summarized in appendix II. However, ASCR has a long 
distance to go before its approach and plans can be effective. 

ASCR has designed its missions and strategic goal. We found that ASCR 
has made progress by describing a compelling mission and strategic 
goal, but has not involved stakeholders, assessed the environment, and 
aligned its activities, core processes, and resources to achieve its 
mission and strategic goal. 

* One of ASCR's missions is to ensure that USDA is in compliance with 
civil rights laws and regulations. This mission calls for ASCR to 
process employees' discrimination complaints as required by the Equal 
Employment Opportunity Commission, and to review USDA agencies' 
implementation of civil rights laws and regulations. 

* ASCR's second mission is to provide leadership to promote equal 
opportunity, equal access, and fair treatment for all USDA employees 
and customers. 

ASCR also has a strategic goal--to ensure USDA provides fair and 
equitable services to all customers and upholds the civil rights of its 
employees. This two-part strategic goal was the basis for the 
development of ASCR's strategic plan. 

Results-oriented organizations take several steps to effectively 
implement their mission and achieve their desired outcomes. They (1) 
involve stakeholders, (2) assess the environment, and (3) align 
activities, core processes, and resources. However, we found that 
ASCR's planning has several shortcomings. First, while results-oriented 
organizations base their strategic planning, to a large extent, on the 
interests and expectations of their stakeholders, ASCR's strategic plan 
states that ASCR relied on input from a variety of internal and 
external customers in developing its strategic plan. However, the plans 
do not identify who provided input or contain a discussion of the 
interests and perspectives of ASCR's stakeholders. For example, while 
ASCR's stakeholders are interested in assuring the diversity of USDA 
field office staff to facilitate their interaction with minority and 
underserved farmers, ASCR's strategic planning does not address the 
diversity of USDA's field staff. ASCR's external stakeholders said that 
they have a high degree of interest in ASCR's planning, and several 
discussed their involvement in ASCR's annual meetings. ASCR refers to 
its stakeholders as "partners"--which include representatives of 
community-based organizations and minority interest groups. These 
partners have attended ASCR's annual partners meetings and discussed 
their wide ranging interests in ASCR's mission. However, ASCR's 
partners' interests vary from ASCR's strategic plan. We developed a 
summary of ASCR's partners' interests based on interviews with the 
representatives of a selection of USDA's partners' groups, and we also 
considered issues identified in past studies of USDA. For example, 
ASCR's partners are interested in improvements in (1) USDA's methods of 
delivering farm programs to facilitate access by underserved producers, 
(2) the county committee system so that they are better represented in 
local decisions, and (3) the diversity of USDA employees who work with 
minority producers. A list of these interests is included in appendix 
III. 

In response, ASCR's Director of Outreach stated that some of ASCR's 
fiscal year 2008 priorities for outreach respond to particular 
interests of ASCR's partners. The Director referred, for example, to 
ASCR's initiatives to coordinate and report on USDA-wide outreach 
activities, to help ensure that USDA agencies have formal outreach 
programs with full-time staff, to train outreach coordinators, and to 
improve ASCR's annual reporting on minority participation in USDA 
programs. 

Second, by building an environmental assessment into the strategic 
planning process, results-oriented organizations identify external and 
internal factors that can influence the achievement of their long-term 
goals. For example, some information about the civil rights environment 
as it affects farmers is described in a study of the Mississippi Delta 
area by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and in a report on minority 
and women farmers by USDA's Economic Research Service.[Footnote 21] 
ASCR's report does not discuss the development or use of such 
information. An assessment of the external environment is especially 
important because ASCR's Office of Outreach is to provide national 
leadership and coordination for USDA programs and services to ensure 
equal and timely access for all of USDA's constituents, especially the 
underserved. As for the internal environment, ASCR recognizes that the 
efforts of various USDA agencies and offices that perform critical 
functions are necessary for full implementation of ASCR's strategic 
goal. However, ASCR's planning does not identify the most critical 
agency functions that relate to ASCR's strategic goal including their 
culture, management practices, and business processes. While this is a 
significant endeavor, getting a good understanding of these facets of 
USDA operations could help contribute to determining what ASCR may need 
to accomplish and how ASCR could best work with other USDA agencies and 
offices. ASCR's Director of Outreach reported that her office is making 
some progress in developing relationships with USDA's agencies in their 
efforts to improve outreach to minority farmers. 

Third, results-oriented organizations align their activities, core 
processes, and resources to support their mission and desired outcomes. 
Such organizations start by assessing the extent to which their 
programs and activities contribute to meeting their mission and make 
linkages between levels of funding and their anticipated results. ASCR 
used an organizational framework for developing its planning, according 
to an ASCR official, and developed objectives for each of ASCR's 
existing offices. However, these plans do not reflect consideration of 
the extent to which each of its office's activities is to contribute to 
ASCR's missions. For example, one ASCR strategic objective is to 
strengthen partnerships with historically black land-grant universities 
through scholarships provided by USDA, but it is not clear how 
scholarships bear significantly on ASCR's mission. Moreover, the plans 
do not make linkages between levels of funding and ASCR's anticipated 
results--without such a discussion it is not possible to determine 
whether ASCR has the resources needed to achieve its strategic goal. 

ASCR could better measure performance to gauge progress. Results- 
oriented organizations establish performance measures that demonstrate 
results, are limited to the vital few performance measures, respond to 
multiple priorities, and link to responsible programs. In addition, 
they pay special attention to issues relating to data collection. 
Moreover, they have to balance the cost of collecting data against the 
need for data that are complete, accurate and consistent enough to 
document performance and support decision making at various 
organizational levels. In this area, ASCR's plans leave room for many 
forward steps. 

* While ASCR identified its Office of Outreach as having responsibility 
for providing national leadership and coordination for programs and 
services across USDA agencies to ensure customers have equal and timely 
access, the measures it adopted focus on counting participants at USDA 
training workshops, rather than on the outcome of its outreach efforts 
on access to benefits and services. 

* ASCR's planning does not link to the plans of USDA agencies or 
department as a whole, and does not discuss the potential for linkages 
to be developed. 

* To measure progress that USDA agencies make in compliance with 
relevant USDA government regulations and laws, ASCR states it will use 
a percentage of agencies in compliance, but had not established the 
baseline and targets. 

ASCR's plans have an important gap in the area of performance 
measurement, especially in an era of limited resources.They do not 
discuss the kinds of data that USDA agencies collect or analyze that 
would demonstrate progress towards ASCR's strategic goal. To leverage 
resources, potential sources of data may be USDA's National 
Agricultural Statistics Service, which conducts the Census of 
Agriculture, and the Economic Research Service, which analyzes and 
reports on trends in agriculture, including social changes. 

ASCR's planning has not considered the use of performance information 
for identifying performance gaps. Results-oriented organizations-- 
after building a performance measurement system--put performance data 
to work to identify gaps in their performance, report on that 
performance, and finally use that information to improve their 
performance to better support their missions. However, the data that 
ASCR now identifies in its plans, such as the number of persons who are 
aware of USDA programs, will contribute relatively little to an 
understanding of USDA's performance gaps in meeting ASCR's strategic 
goal. For example, such data will not provide any insight into how well 
USDA staff work with and assist minority and limited-resource 
customers, whether the programs provide for equitable treatment, and 
how well USDA upholds the civil rights of its employees. Also, ASCR 
will need to work closely with other USDA agencies, such as the Farm 
Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Cooperative 
State Research, Extension, and Education Service, and the Rural 
Development Mission Area, but the ASCR plans do not discuss how their 
data can be used to contribute to identifying gaps in USDA's 
performance. Nevertheless, ASCR officials said that they have taken 
steps in this direction through annual reviews of the performance of 
USDA agency heads. Through these reviews, ASCR officials said they are 
making some recommendations for agency change, although the USDA 
agencies are not required to follow those recommendations. 

Concluding Observations: 

USDA has been addressing allegations of discrimination for decades. One 
lawsuit has cost taxpayers nearly a billion dollars in payouts to date, 
and several other groups are seeking redress for similar alleged 
discrimination. While ASCR's policy is to fairly and efficiently 
respond to complaints of discrimination, its efforts to establish the 
management system necessary to implement the policy have fallen far 
short. For example, both we and USDA's OIG have observed that ASCR does 
not have oversight and control over its inventory of discrimination 
complaints--controls that are vital to effective management. Despite 
the numerous past efforts to provide this office with constructive 
analysis, including recommendations to set timeframes for resolving 
complaints from beginning to end, significant management deficiencies 
remain. Such resistance to improve its management system calls into 
question USDA's commitment to more efficiently and effectively address 
discrimination complaints both within the department and in its 
programs. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased 
to respond to any questions that you or other Members of the 
Subcommittee may have. 

Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public 
Affairs may be found on the last page of this statement. For further 
information about this testimony, please contact Lisa Shames, Director, 
Natural Resources and Environment at (202) 512-3841 or [email protected] 
Key contributors to this statement were Charles M. Adams, Kevin Bray, 
Robert Cramer, Nancy Crothers, Richard Egan, Ronald Fecso, Bart 
Fischer, Cardell Johnson, Elizabeth Johnston, Karen Keegan, Kerry 
Lipsitz, Nhi Nguyen, Andrew O'Connell, Terry Richardson, and Susan 
Sawtelle. 

[End of section] 

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology: 

During this performance audit, we reviewed relevant reports prepared by 
the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), USDA's Office of Inspector 
General (OIG), the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the U.S. Equal 
Employment Opportunity Commission, and GAO, among others. We also 
conducted over 50 interviews with officials and staff of USDA's Office 
of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (ASCR); over 65 interviews 
with staff of USDA's Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources 
Conservation Service, Rural Development Mission Area, Cooperative State 
Research, Extension, and Education Service, the National Agricultural 
Statistical Service, and USDA field offices in California, Florida, 
North Carolina, Texas, and Washington; 20 interviews with USDA 
stakeholder groups, including The Rural Coalition, United Farmers USA, 
the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, South East Asian American 
Farmers Association, the Intertribal Agricultural Council, the National 
Tribal Development Association, the Hispanic Farmers and Ranchers of 
America, the National Black Farmers Association, National Hmong 
American Farmers, and the Coalition of USDA Minority Employees; and 
three interviews with officials of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights 
and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In addition, we 
considered GAO and the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) guidance 
on strategic planning and performance.[Footnote 22] 

Unlike our prior reviews of USDA civil rights activities when we 
readily obtained access to records that were necessary for our work, in 
this case our efforts were impeded by delays in obtaining records. We 
made repeated requests for USDA records--including requests directly to 
the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and the Deputy Secretary. 
These requests concerned records relating to ASCR's priorities, ASCR's 
strategic plan, ASCR civil rights related performance assessments of 
agency heads, correspondence between ASCR and USDA's Office of General 
Counsel, unresolved discrimination complaints, outreach, ASCR office 
budgets, and USDA's request for OMB approval to collect data needed for 
reporting on minority farmer participation in USDA programs, among 
others. In January 2008, we requested the Deputy Secretary's 
cooperation and assistance in arranging for access to USDA records, and 
we subsequently received many, but not all, of the records we sought. 
Nevertheless, the records we received were sufficient for our work to 
meet generally accepted government auditing standards. These standards 
require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, 
appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and 
conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe the evidence 
obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions 
based on our audit objectives. 

Furthermore, starting in January 2008, several USDA employees contacted 
us with certain allegations pertinent to our work, such as the possible 
destruction of records and manipulation of discrimination complaint 
data related to GAO's engagement. Consequently, we and USDA's OIG 
conducted a number of additional interviews with agency staff. Based on 
the interviews we conducted, we learned of additional deficiencies in 
the handling of discrimination complaints, among other things, but did 
not find evidence that our work had been purposely undermined. Also, 
several allegations not directly related to our work came to our 
attention that we will refer to USDA's OIG and the Department of 
Justice for further investigation. 

[End of section] 

Appendix II: USDA ASCR Initiatives, and Strategic and Priority Plans: 

Table 4: ASCR Initiatives for Fiscal Year 2004: 

Challenges: Organization; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Consolidated USDA offices with civil 
rights focus into ASCR; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Challenges: Organization; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Staff were temporarily assigned to address 
discrimination complaints; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Challenges: Systems; Initiatives/Accomplishments: 
Develop a professional system for managing discrimination complaints; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: On-going. 

Challenges: Procedural; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Regulations are being drafted to address 
the relationship between USDA's Office of General Counsel and ASCR's 
Office of Adjudication and Compliance; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: On-going. 

Challenges: Operational; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Created a unit to handle incoming phone 
calls for ASCR; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Challenges: Operational; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Reduced backlogs of customer and employee 
discrimination complaints; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Challenges: Operational; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: USDA's alternative dispute resolution 
policy was amended in April 2006 to enhance the use of alternative 
dispute resolution; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Challenges: Operational; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Conduct a public awareness campaign--
several public forums and "listening sessions" have been held to 
discuss partnerships, the Minority Farm Registry, the Notice of Farm 
Loan Application Receipts, and the next Farm Bill; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: On-going. 

Challenges: Accountability; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Prevent program complaints--ASCR has 
convened three Partners Meetings with community based organizations and 
groups representing minority and limited resource farmers to address 
concerns about access to farm programs; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: On-going. 

Challenges: Accountability; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Prevent employee complaints-- training for 
managers on equal employment opportunity is mandatory, and employee 
development programs are being implemented; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: On-going. 

Challenges: Accountability; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: Implement the "No Fear Act"-- Public Law 
107-174 requires federal agencies to be held accountable for violations 
of anti-discrimination laws--USDA's quarterly reports are being posted 
on time, and all employees have received training; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Challenges: Accountability; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: ASCR completed an accountability policy 
for USDA--USDA's Office of Human Resources will ensure that all USDA 
managers are held accountable for discriminatory actions; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Challenges: Accountability; 
Initiatives/Accomplishments: An annual civil rights conference has been 
established; 
Status as of Dec. 2007: Complete. 

Source: USDA ASCR briefing document as of November 2007. 

[End of table] 

Table 5: ASCR Strategic Objectives for Fiscal Years 2005 through 2010: 

Objective: Strengthen partnerships between USDA and 1890 Community 
(historically black land-grant institutions); 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Increase student 
scholarships provided by USDA from 25 to 33. 

Objective: Strengthen partnerships between USDA and 1994 land-grant 
institutions (Native American tribal colleges); 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Increase student 
scholarships provided by USDA from 5 to 9 by 2010. 

Objective: Enhance the Office of the Secretary and Departmental Office 
employees' knowledge of the fairness, neutrality, and confidentiality 
of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) usage; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Increase the knowledge of 
employees familiar with alternative dispute resolution from 100 to 950. 

Objective: Ensure USDA agencies and offices are in compliance with USDA 
regulations and government-wide ADR laws and regulations; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Percentage of agencies in 
compliance-- baseline and targets to be determined. 

Objective: Achieve an efficient USDA-wide outreach program for all 
customers; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Numbers of socially and 
economically disadvantaged persons who received training for the first 
time--baseline and targets to be determined. 

Objective: Create and strengthen partnerships with community and faith- 
based organizations, corporations, foundations, educational 
institutions and other targeted communities to build coalitions for 
USDA programs and opportunities; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Increase number of 
partnerships and coalitions from 10 to 50. 

Objective: Increase the awareness of USDA programs and opportunities 
for the socially and economically disadvantaged persons and also under- 
represented persons; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Increase number of 
individuals aware of participation requirements from 100,000 to 
160,000. 

Objective: Develop and implement an efficient complaint process that 
adheres to civil rights laws and regulations; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Increase the number of 
cases processed within regulatory timeframe from 40 to 100 percent for 
employee complaints and from 16 to 100 percent for customer complaints. 

Objective: Ensure USDA agencies and offices are in compliance with EEO 
laws; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Percentage of USDA 
agencies brought into compliance--baseline and targets to be 
determined. 

Objective: Meet EEOC standards for a Model EEO Program; 
Selected Key Performance Indicator for 2010: Increase percentage of 
EEOC indicators that are met from 33 to 100 percent by 2009. 

Source: USDA. 

[End of table] 

Table 6: List of Civil Rights Priorities and Selected Initiatives for 
Fiscal Years 2007 and 2008: 

Diversity: 
Fill senior executive position to lead ASCR's Outreach and Diversity 
Division. 

Diversity: 
Add workplace diversity as a core value. 

Diversity: 
Develop and conduct mandatory Diversity Awareness Training for all 
supervisors and employees. 

Diversity: 
Offer training, including a disability training conference and an 
AgLearn training module on sexual orientation. 

Diversity: 
Establish a diversity forum to foster communication between USDA senior 
management and internal customers of USDA. 

Outreach: 
Develop and implement a comprehensive USDA-wide outreach plan. 

Outreach: 
Provide oversight and coordination of minority participation data. 

Outreach: 
Conduct a joint review with USDA's Agricultural Research Service of the 
Hispanic Serving Institutions National Program. 

Conflict Prevention and Resolution: 
Create an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) video on mediation. 

Conflict Prevention and Resolution: 
Recommend establishing dedicated ADR Director positions in USDA 
agencies. 

Conflict Prevention and Resolution: 
Conduct a USDA-wide ADR awareness survey. 

Continuing Civil Rights Initiatives: 
Comply with No FEAR Act requirements. 

Continuing Civil Rights Initiatives: 
Update civil rights directives, regulations, and policies as needed. 

Continuing Civil Rights Initiatives: 
Continue to strive to ensure that Final Agency Decisions meet legal 
sufficiency standards and time requirements. 

Continuing Civil Rights Initiatives: 
Convene biennial USDA Civil Rights Conference in 2008. 

Communications and Public Awareness: 
Create a strategic marketing campaign focused on ASCR goals and civil 
rights accomplishments by USDA agencies. 

Communications and Public Awareness: 
Recognize and award internal and external stakeholders for civil rights 
best practices. 

Source: USDA. 

[End of table] 

[End of section] 

Appendix III: Interests of Selected USDA Stakeholders in Civil Rights 
Related Matters as Identified by GAO in 2007 and 2008: 

USDA Program: Outreach Programs: 
USDA outreach programs for underserved producers could be much better. 

USDA Program: Outreach Programs: 
Systematic data on minority participation in USDA programs are not 
available. 

USDA Program: Outreach Programs: 
The 10708 Report and Minority Farm Register have been ineffective. 

USDA Program: Outreach Programs: 
Partnerships with community-based organizations could be better used. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
Methods of USDA program delivery need to better facilitate the 
participation of underserved producers and address their needs. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
USDA could do more to provide assistance in accessing markets and 
programs. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
USDA could better address cultural and language differences for 
providing services. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
Some USDA program rules and features hinder participation by 
underserved producers. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
Some USDA employees have little incentive to work with small and 
minority producers. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
County offices working with underserved producers continue to lack 
diversity, and some have poor customer service and/or display 
discriminatory behaviors towards underserved producers. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
USDA lacks a program that addresses farm worker needs. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
There continues to be reports of cases where USDA is not processing 
loans for underserved producers. 

USDA Programs: Program Delivery: 
Some Hmong poultry farmers with guaranteed loans facilitated by USDA 
are experiencing foreclosures. 

USDA Programs: County System: 
The county committee system does not well represent minority producers. 

USDA Programs: County System: 
Minority advisors are ineffective because they have no voting power. 

USDA Programs: County System: 
USDA has not done enough to make underserved producers fully aware of 
county committee elections, and underserved producers have difficulties 
winning elections. 

USDA Programs: Investment: 
There is a lack of USDA investment in research and extension services 
that would determine the extent of minority needs. 

USDA Programs: Census of Agriculture: 
The Census of Agriculture needs to better count minority producers. 

USDA Programs: Foreclosure: 
USDA may continue to be foreclosing on farms belonging to producers who 
are awaiting decisions on discrimination complaints. 

USDA Internal Issues: Authority: 
ASCR needs authority to exercise leadership for making changes at USDA. 

USDA Internal Issues: Resources: 
USDA and ASCR need additional resources to carry out civil rights 
functions. 

USDA Internal Issues: Diversity: 
Greater diversity among USDA employees would facilitate USDA's work 
with minority producers. 

USDA Internal Issues: Access: 
Producers must still access services through some USDA employees who 
discriminated against them. 

USDA Internal Issues: Management Structure: 
The Office of Adjudication and Compliance needs better management 
structure and function. 

USDA Internal Issues: Management Structure: 
Backlogs of discrimination complaints need to be addressed. 

USDA Internal Issues: Management Structure: 
Alternative dispute resolution techniques to resolve informally 
employee complaints should be used consistently and documented. 

USDA Internal Issues: Management Structure: 
Civil rights compliance reviews of USDA agencies are behind schedule 
and should be conducted. 

USDA Internal Issues: General Counsel Review: 
USDA's Office of General Counsel continues to be involved in complaint 
cases. 

Source: GAO Analysis of 18 interviews with USDA stakeholders and review 
of 16 reports related to civil rights at USDA. 

[End of table] 

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture: A 
Report by the Civil Rights Action Team, U.S. Department of Agriculture 
(Washington, D.C.: February 1997). 

[2] A class action lawsuit is one in which a party sues on behalf of 
him or herself and a larger group similarly situated. 

[3] Pigford v. Schafer, Civil Action No. 97-1978 (D.D.C. filed Oct. 23, 
1997) (formerly Pigford v. Glickman). 

[4] Legislation has been introduced in the Congress to allow further 
consideration of claims that were not filed timely. 

[5] These cases include Keepseagle v. Schafer, Civil Action No. 99- 
03119 (D.D.C.); Garcia v. Schafer, Civil Action No. 00-02445 (D.D.C.); 
and Love v. Schafer, Civil Action No. 00-02502 (D.D.C.) 

[6] Pub. L. No. 107-171, 116 Stat. 134 �10708, 522 (2002). 

[7] GAO, Department of Agriculture: Improvements in the Operations of 
the Civil Rights Program Would Benefit Hispanic and Other Minority 
Farmers, GAO-02-942 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 20, 2002). 

[8] ASCR's backlogs of discrimination complaints generally consist of 
numbers of complaints for which ASCR has insufficient capacity to 
adjudicate promptly. 

[9] USDA, First 1,000 Days, 2003-2006 (Washington, D.C.: July 2007). 

[10] We conducted our interviews with the former Director, Office of 
Adjudication and Compliance, prior to her resignation at about the end 
of August 2007. 

[11] In addition, during this time period ASCR held in abeyance 
complaints associated with pending and potential class action 
litigation. 

[12] A customer may file a complaint (1) with the agency, (2) in 
federal court, or (3) both. He or she need not file a claim with the 
agency before filing in federal court. Following a January 29, 1998 
legal memorandum from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal 
Counsel, USDA will not award administrative settlements for Equal 
Credit Opportunity Act claims once the 2-year statute of limitations 
for filing such a claim in federal court has passed, unless the farmer 
has timely filed a complaint in federal court. 

[13] A second and separate case involving American Indians of the Fort 
Berthold Reservation has been incorporated within the Keepseagle class 
action case. 

[14] Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Investigation 
Procedures Manual for the Investigation and Resolution of Complaints 
Alleging Violations of Title VI and Other Nondiscrimination Statutes 
(Washington, D.C.: September 1998). In addition, the President's 
Council on Integrity and Efficiency, Quality Standards for 
Investigations (December 2003) calls for due professional care in 
performing investigations by, among other things, achieving 
thoroughness through the application of appropriate techniques. 

[15] GAO, U.S. Department of Agriculture: Problems Continue to Hinder 
the Timely Processing of Discrimination Complaints, GAO/RCED-99-38 
(Washington, D.C.: Jan. 29, 1999). 

[16] USDA Office of Inspector General, Office of Civil Rights Status of 
the Implementation of Recommendations Made in Prior Evaluations of 
Program Complaints, Audit Report No. 60801-4-Hq (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 
10, 2007). 

[17] GAO, Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of 
Agriculture, GAO-03-96 (Washington, D.C.: January 2003). 

[18] USDA Office of Inspector General, Management Challenges 
(Washington, D.C.: Aug. 1, 2007). USDA's OIG previously identified 
civil rights as a major management challenge for USDA in August 2004. 

[19] USDA Office of Inspector General, Review of the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture's Accountability for Actions Taken on Civil Rights 
Complaints, Audit Report No. 60601-04-Hy (Washington, D.C.: May 14, 
2007). 

[20] USDA, Bridges to the Future: 2003 Annual Report of the 
Participation of Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers in USDA 
Programs, The Section 10708 Report (Washington, D.C.: December 2004); 
Bridges to the Future: 2004 Annual Report of the Participation of 
Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers in USDA Programs, The 
Section 10708 Report (Washington, D.C.: December 2005); and, Bridges to 
the Future: 2005 Annual Report of the Participation of Socially 
Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers in USDA Programs, The Section 10708 
Report (Washington, D.C.: June 2007). 

[21] U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Racial and Ethnic Tensions in 
American Communities: Poverty, Inequality, and Discrimination, Volume 
VII: The Mississippi Delta Report (Washington, D.C.: February 2001) and 
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Minority & 
Women Farmers in the U.S. (Washington, D.C.: May 1998). 

[22] Measuring racial discrimination is important to understanding 
where it occurs, the extent of its impact, and what to do about it. 
Researchers have recommended that agencies explore the use of field 
studies, such as has been done since the 1970s to detect racially based 
discrimination in housing. See National Research Council, National 
Academy of Sciences, Measuring Racial Discrimination (Washington, D.C.: 
2004). 

[23] GAO, Executive Guide: Effectively Implementing the Government 
Performance and Results Act, [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-
bin/getrpt?GAO/GGD-96-118] (Washington, D.C.: June 1996). 

[End of section] 

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