Agricultural Research Service: Review of Administrative and Financial Management Services

February 2017 – The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and the other Research, Education and Economic (REE) agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are research-focused agencies with offices located throughout the United States. ARS is USDA’s chief scientific in-house research agency, which researches and develops solutions on complex agricultural problems.

ARS has adopted a shared services concept for administrative and financial service delivery and created the Administrative and Financial Management (AFM) service organization to manage delivery of these essential mission support functions.  ARS contracted with the National Academy of Public Administration (the Academy) to evaluate and recommend improvements in the delivery of these services to ARS and three other REE agencies. 

In order to assess AFM service delivery, the Academy’s professional study team traveled to several research locations to interview employees and conducted an all-employee survey.  In addition, the Academy convened an Expert Advisory Group of three distinguished Academy Fellows to guide this review.  

Key Findings and Recommendations

The study team’s AFM service delivery research is divided into four main topics:  organizational structure, processes, people, and systems. There are 29 recommendations in these four categories.  The report offers four organizational structure options and six assessment criteria for the ARS leadership to consider. Rather than prescribing a particular organizational structure, the report recommends careful consideration of process, people, and systems changes as important actions that should be used to inform organizational structure changes. 

Process analysis focuses on actions to enhance accountability, communications, and virtual organization. People-related issues include actions to address human resources, an increasing administrative workload, training, and performance management.  Analysis of systems addresses the AFM Customer Service Portal, consideration of centralizing information technology, and information systems.   In addition, there are several recommendations for ARS to consider several modest organizational changes.

The Academy study team recommends that ARS leadership to take action to address existing challenges.  The report provides 11 recommendations to help guide the formulation, communication, and implementation of next steps as part of an organizational transformation.