2016 NASCOE Convention Q&A Session with Management

Management Panel: Val Dolcini, ADM, Chris Beyerhelm, Associate ADM, Greg Diephouse, DAFO, Darren Ash, FSA CIO, Radha Sekar, CFO, Thomas Mulhern, Director, HRD, Brad Pfaff, DAFP, Mark Rucker, DAM, Glen Schafer, BTO, Doug Nash, OCIO-CIO, Clinton Swett, Deputy OCIO

Q: What is the timeline for the new MPS and is that the only kind of printer that will be sent to the county offices?

A: Clinton Swett: There was problem with the original provider contract. There will be a MPS 2, and that contract should be awarded August 24, 2016, but any printers ordered will not come in until March 2017. There are many components in the process and it will take time to get that all in place.  Service Centers will be able to order the new printers. If you have a MPS 1 printer, you can keep until the end of 2017. If you don’t have any new printers, you will be able to get one after February 2017.  CTS provides the service and it will be up to Darren Ash to order, but the MPS saves about 40% of the cost of using a regular printer. FSA printed over 10 million pages and the department used only 13 million pages.

 

Q: What would it take to get sick leave eligible to donate?

A: Tom Mulhern: It would take an act of Congress

 

Q: It has been 28 years since Program Technicians have had an increase to a grade 7, when will it happen again?

A: Greg Diephouse: They are looking at program descriptions line by line to determine the level the program technician is working at and the position descriptions will be revised and then it will be examined for reclassification. Tom Mulhern: It is difficult to get new grades, and if it can be supported, it will be considered. The work group is working on this now.

 

Q: Are the states still limited on how many COC meetings can be held?

A: Greg Diephouse: States are funded for 8-10 meetings, but they are allowed to meet monthly, but not all counties meet monthly.

 

Q: Why did you choose to work for FSA?

A: Darren Ash: He had been at NRC for about 9 years and was ready to take on a challenge and liked the FSA mission.

 

Q: For 2014, there was a sweep in ARC/PLC to remove approval dates; can the sweep date happen based on the enrollment date rather than approving them individually?

A: Brad Pfaff: There is a difference between the allotment and the apportionment. When the sweep happened, it was due to the sequestration rate. Rahda Sakar: When the contracts were accepted we had not received funding; there was a sweep to make sure they were approved when funding was available. The sweep for this year should happen in September.

 

Q: The current GPS units will be going offline and that will create a problem with accuracy when using these units. When will TRIMBLE be released?

A: Darren Ash: He wants to go back and get additional data before committing to a timeline.

 

Q: Temporary employees hired after 1989 cannot buy back their time. Will this be changed?

A: Tom Mulhern: This has been addressed and some legislation would have to be changed in order for that to happen. Val Dolcini said they would work with OPM to address this situation and see what they can do.

 

Q: Windows 10 is to be installed soon and training will be needed to understand this system. What kind of training will be provided?

A: Doug Nash: Windows 10 will happen over the next couple of years as new equipment is installed. They will work on the training as the equipment is upgraded. They will communicate with FSA on training.

 

Q: When an update is done with a new producer, new farm, and  you go back to the business file you need to refresh that information but it takes out all the information on all their farms and it is necessary to re-load all that data.

A: Brad Pfaff: We will help get that fixed. Darren Ash: They will get the fix.

 

Q: What process do you use when a COC imposes a decision and what do you do to override the determination?

A: Brad Pfaff: He described the process of appeals and how it is done from the county level to the state level to the Washington DC level. They look at procedure and compare that to the appeal and if it possible to provide relief, then they do. If something is a violation, then DAFP looks at the situation surrounding the problem.

 

Q: Are there any plans to use retired employees?

A: Tom Mulhern: There is an act for hiring retired annuitant. It is a half time employment opportunity, but only about 1% would be able to be rehired. More information will be coming out on this issue. The notice has been issued on this subject. Val Dolcini: The mentor program using retired employees is something they are looking at in the succession planning process. Greg Diephouse: Work with the state office regarding managing this tool.

 

Q: CRP rental rates can be reviewed every two years. Why can’t we review the rental rates annually so they move with the current prices more reflectively?

A: Brad Pfaff: It does cost FSA to do the survey used for the rental rates. There are conversations on doing the survey annually and he will take that back to Washington.

 

Q: Are there discussions regarding allowing NRCS to edit our CLU layer?

A: Brad Pfaff: Yes those discussions are happening to have NRCS edit the CLU and SCIMS. Darren Ash: They are looking at the impact it could have allowing other agencies to have that type of access.  The goal is to have agencies be able to share information since we have common customers, but they are looking for an appropriate way to administer this.

 

Q: Could proration be done with BCAP funds because there is not enough money for this program?

A: Brad Pfaff: There has been a lot of interest in this program. There is $15 million available annually and this creates a challenge to administer this program. It is very limited what is available in this program. He wants to hear suggestions and comments to make the program better. The factor question can be considered to determine if this would be feasible.

 

Q: The furniture refresh project expired, but some offices did not get new furniture. Will they get some in the future?

A: Mark Rucker: If funds become available, they will continue this project. Chris Beyerhelm: With the new discipline about spending money, there will not be money left over at the end of the year to use in the furniture refresh. It needs to be worked into the budget so it happens all year and not rely on a surplus at the end of the year for such projects.

 

Q: There is some confusion regarding staffing ceilings. Can you clarify this?

A: Greg Diephouse: Two years ago we were 400-500 under ceiling and now we are at non-fed ceiling of 7228, so just over one hundred vacancies. Only 6 positions are left to work on.

 

Q: When will we be able to get credit in the county where the work is done?

A: Chris Beyerhelm: They are looking at this enhancement and they are planning a prototype in about 6 months.

 

Q: AGI’s have been sent to IRS and information came back and said it has been updated, but it has not been updated in the system, so it has to be re-sent and this takes a lot of time. Can this process be changed?

A: Brad Pfaff: They are working on trying to get answers from IRS on this issue and he would like to see it happen that the COF could put in a determination after a set amount of time. This is something they are working on. Val Dolcini suggested that this topic be discussed at the SED conference.

 

Q: Can the COC’s or STC’s look at the projected ARC rates and how this is determined? The projections are not good for some counties and this should not be happening.  This is really a problem with irrigated and non-irrigated land; they have to use the same benchmark for irrigated and the dryland producers would not receive a payment.

A: Brad Pfaff: They will look at the rates and they will have more discussion with Extension about releasing projected rates. If 25% of the crop is irrigated in a county, NASS usually breaks out the differences in irrigated and non-irrigated land, but in some states this is not happening.

They use NASS data and then to RMA and then to NASS district and then to the state committee when determining some yields. SED’s can submit documentation to justify a change, but STC’s do not have authority to adjust yields. Val Dolcini: This will probably be a 2018 farm bill issue, it will not be changed in the current bill.

 

Q: FSA employees are strongly concerned about NRCS having access to CLU and business partner applications. Can county committee members have access to new web 4.2 WebTA to approve time sheets?

A: Tom Mulhern: It will have to be discussed, from a technology perspective, it can be done, but the policy would have to be clarified.

 

Q: In the past, there was a person in USDA service centers to update LincPass. In many cases now, these centers are long distances away. Can a person in the service center do this?

A: Mark Rucker: At this time, the answer is no. An activation station would be required and most of this is a resource question. The only thing that can be done is a PIN reset on regular stations. You need a special station to do certifications.

 

Q: Temps are to be released on 9-30-16. Is there a way to keep them longer?

A: Greg Diephouse: They had a commitment to try and keep the temps until September 30 of this year. The farm bill money is mostly spent and there may be some money left for the next fiscal year, but there would not be much. Until more appropriations are secured, this would not be possible.

Chris Beyerhelm: If we want to have temps, we would have to give up something else. Val Dolcini: Many temps have become permanent employees, but it is a resources issue at this time. It looks like there will be a continuing resolution and it will have to be determined if there will be money for temps. We are 20% down on FTE’s from a few years ago, so we use temps more strategically to help where needed. States should not plan on temps at this point.

 

Q: Since grazing is required for emergency programs, can grazing rights be identified in CARS?

A: Brad Pfaff: Yes, this can be done, but he wants more information on the policy implications.

 

Q: There are offices in IL that are empty and rent is still being paid. Why?

A: Greg Diephouse: There is a law in effect that will not allow closing such an office. The legal language would have to be changed in order for that to happen.

 

Q: Thanked them for the employee satisfaction survey. Could there be a comment box to explain answers? 

A: Chris Beyerhelm: He agrees that we should be able to clarify answers. They will continue to try to have that added. In the meantime, employees can send comments to the staff that are present.

 

Q: When will the COC approval authority be restored in 2-CRP?

A: Brad Pfaff: There should be information released in the near future regarding this issue. This was an issue that Brad wanted to work on right away. A notice should be out in the next few weeks restoring this authority.

 

Q: Is it law that the IRS must verify AGI’s and can this be restored back to the county offices?

A: Brad Pfaff: This came out as a result of the improper payment act. This is a requirement that the IRS check the AGI’s.

 

Q: Facility loans for movable equipment and trucks are causing some banks to complain that they cannot match the interest.

A: Brad Pfaff: There will be training the week of August 8 regarding the new policy. Trucks under loan must be box trucks for cold or dry storage. We are not providing loans for semi’s. There is tremendous interest in helping growers to move their product to market, mostly fresh food and vegetable. This will provide a means to move the product. This is something the COC is involved in and they will review these applications. He believes this will help some regional problems in moving products. The producer always has the opportunity to obtain conventional lending.

 

Q: There is concern about the 3 year useable life for a truck and that this could result in producers coming in more regularly.

A: Brad Pfaff: There will be more training on this program. Val Dolcini: Please let management know if there are more complaints from bankers.

 

Q: Safe acres are limited; there are many applications but the acres are very limited. Is there any anticipation to increase SAFE acres?

A: Val Dolcini: There is a lot of interest in SAFE acres but those acres are under the conservation cap of 24 million acres and they are bumping up against that ceiling. They will be releasing information regarding the acres that could be available. They hope to have a more definitive answer by fall.

 

Q: ACRSI: Some agents were telling producers that they did not have to come to FSA at all if they certified with their agent. FSA certified the crop report and when it was submitted to insurance, the system messed up the crop reports in FSA. FSA certifies in hundredths and insurance certifies in tenths and this creates problems. Agents only care about the insured crops and this creates problems with non-insured crops.

A: Val Dolcini: ACRSI is an initiative in the current farm bill and they have been working on making this work between the agencies. The approach taken in the initiative, by starting with 30 counties and now up to 95% of reportable crops, seemed to be a good way to approach this situation. They utilized people from across the country to provide input. It is very important that the message is the same with the agencies involved. 95% of farmers come to FSA and then it is sent digitally to RMA at this time.  Precision Ag industry will be involved and must abide by the standards created for this program.

 

Q: AO-1660 requires language proficiency, why are we doing this?

A: Greg Diephouse: This will be addressed in the future

 

Q: Why are we not getting comp time given at time and a half for working with the producers?

A: Greg Diephouse: This is a state by state decision and they want to provide adequate compensation for work done.

 

Q: What is the significance of having death notices for people who died many years ago?

A: Val Dolcini: Congress mandated that we work with social security to track deceased producers and that is why these are coming up. Periodically, mass mailings are sent to deceased producers and this is an attempt to clean up the files.

 

Q: There is concern about the state DNR agencies changing their rules when working with conservation programs, burning, mowing, etc.

A: Val Dolcini: They work with land grant agencies in the states and NRCS is the technical agency and other agencies are partnered in this effort. They will look at this in the future.

 

Q: There is concern about NRCS doing FSA work on the CLU and business partner. There is also a problem with closing offices with no real data and justification based on workload rather than lack of staff.

A: Greg Diephouse: There are instances that producers may have to drive further for agency service, but there are cases where the office is in an isolated area, but at this time they cannot close offices. There are cases where the offices should be closed, but at this time that cannot be done.

Chris Beyerhelm: Using the criteria that Congress mandated was not based on workload but staffing and that should not have been the criteria, so this will be looked at in the future.

 

Q: On farms with less than 10 base acres, could those payments be made to beginning farmers?

A: Brad Pfaff: This is something that will be discussed. There is a beginning farmer initiative and this will be looked into. Brent Orr: This would take congressional action to change that statute.

 

Q: With regard to BTO, in many cases FSA is the point of contact, what are the future plans and the timeline for such.

A: Val Dolcini: This has been very successful and they want to expand this program further. There is a plan to expand this program so that all county offices can enjoy the benefits.

 

Q: Currently the county is in shared management and the CED retired, so now an adjoining CED must cover. Will CED’s be compensated for doing more?

A: Greg Diephouse: They will try and get to this issue.

 

Q: Fall reporting of winter wheat can be a problem to be done timely. Is there any way to do this regionally and not charge a late filed fee?

A: Brad Pfaff: They have worked with RMA on reporting dates. They have waived fees in the past, but that is not in effect at this time. The regionalization of reporting is something he would like to discuss.

 

Q: Why isn’t the DD getting input from the PT’s for CED reviews and likewise, the CED giving input on DD reviews and likewise upward?

A: Greg Diephouse: SED input comes to him throughout the year. He feels additional input is helpful, especially for the COC. At this time there is no formal process for this.

 

NASCOE News Flash: Notes from NASCOE Meetings with Management

NASCOE leadership was fortunate to be able to meet with management during our trip to Washington, DC on February 23-24, 2016. We had meaningful conversations with FSA Administrator Val Dolcini, Associate Administrator Chris Beyerhelm, Deputy Administrator of Field Operations Greg Diephouse and his team, Deputy Administrator of Farm Programs Brad Pfaff and his team, Thomas Mulhern and Barbara Boyd of HRD and Tonye Gross who leads the ACRSI Initiative.

Administrator Dolcini and Deputy Administrator Diephouse

NASCOE thanked Administrator Dolcini for inviting the leaders of the employee associations to attend recent national training sessions. NASCOE was represented at the recent CRP Training and the national Farm Loan Training. This allowed the leadership teams from all of the associations an opportunity to discuss common issues and to collaborate on solving those issues.

The Administrator indicated he would have good representation from the National Office at the 2016 National NASCOE Convention in Cedar Rapids, IA. This is a tremendous opportunity for field office employees to meet and interact with FSA’s upper management. In addition to the National Convention, FSA management will be attending the Area rallies and we encourage you to attend if at all possible.

Administrator Dolcini notified NASCOE that he would be holding a Town Hall meeting again this year. The meeting will be streamed live or available by teleconference and focus on workforce engagement. The meeting will also be recorded for those unable to participate on the date of the meeting. Be looking for additional information announcing the official date and time.

The Administrator gave a quick update on the Acreage Crop Reporting Streamlining Initiative (ACRSI). FSA has been working with RMA and Approved Insurance Providers (AIP’s) at various stages of the development of ACRSI. There are still some technology glitches that need to be addressed. The expanded deployment of ACRSI will include 13 crops which will encompass over 90% of the total reported acreages. They are reviewing the Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) to determine best business practices. The SED’s received an update on ACRSI recently and Administrator Dolcini offered to share that with NASCOE.

Administrator Dolcini and Deputy Administrator of Farm Programs Brad Pfaff will be attending the Commodity Classic to demonstrate FSAfarm+. Producers should find this a useful tool, however Level 2 eAuth privileges are needed for access.

Associate Administrator Chris Beyerhelm

NASCOE appreciates the extra effort made by Associate Administrator Beyerhelm to meet. An unexpected meeting conflicted with our originally scheduled time however Chris made time in his schedule for us. Chris gave an update on his initiative to review, consolidate and update directives. The goals of the initiative are to update handbooks and to limit actual policy to notices and handbooks. He is updated every two weeks as to the status of the review. He has also started a process where each amendment or notice is tracked through the clearance process to identify where any potential delay may occur. This should result in reduced time for directives to make it through clearance. There was a brief discussion on the hiring process and how it can be improved. During our last visit with management, Associate Administrator Beyerhelm had arranged a demonstration of the ARS based workload model being developed. Not all decisions pertaining to the workload model are final at this time but we are cautiously optimistic that this tool will be beneficial.

Deputy Administrator of Field Operations Greg Diephouse and his Team

We met with Greg and his team and were able to follow up on some concerns that membership had expressed. DAFO is continuing to address the Lead PT issue and some states avoidance in utilizing the position. There are discrepancies in the handbook and the shared management agreement that was previously negotiated with NASCOE. DAFO is working diligently to address those differences and to encourage SED’s to use this valuable tool. NASCOE continues to stress to membership that we need to utilize all of our opportunities to promote deserving employees when policy allows.

NASCOE has received comments from several areas of the country that funding for temporaries is becoming a critical issue and that many temporaries will not be able to stay on board after March 31, 2016. States were initially allocated funding for temporaries through the first and second quarter of FY-16. Some states have had to staff more heavily than others so they may have completely used that initial allocation. Other states may have not used the full allocation. The temporary staffing and funding level is a moving target depending on the amount of past and immediate workload demands. Internal discussions are being held to determine availability of funding temporaries for the remainder of the fiscal year. A decision on the availability of temporary CO employees should be made around the first of March.

During the 2015 negotiation session, management offered to establish a shared management virtual task force to explore ways to improve shared management operations. NASCOE has provided the names of a CED and PT from each of the 5 NASCOE areas for consideration to serve on the task force. With shared management ever increasing it is imperative that we find ways to improve the system.

NASCOE was notified that DAFO has received the data from the FY-2015 performance cycle but has not had the opportunity to fully examine the results. Greg was encouraged by the initial review of the data and feels that progress has been made in the overall implementation on the process. NASCOE will be able to see the results once DAFO has completed their review.

In addition to these general topics, we also appreciated the opportunity to discuss some specific employee and county committee issues with Greg and his team.

Deputy Administrator for Farm Programs Brad Pfaff and his Team

ACRSI and other program issues were the big topics of the meetings with DAFP Brad Pfaff and the members of his team. NASCOE very much appreciates the privilege of participating in the weekly ACRSI national conference calls and looks forward to contributing to the success of ACRSI in any manner we can. As Administrator Dolcini indicated in our discussion with him, there are some technology glitches that are being corrected. In addition to that, there are some policy gaps that are still being resolved.

NASCOE provided DAFP leaders several of the documents that some of the Approved Insurance Providers have mailed producers soliciting them to not report to FSA but to them instead. This has been troubling to county office field level personnel and NASCOE membership. ACRSI was designed to be able to transfer common data between RMA and FSA. The two pilots have reinforced that FSA is good at taking comprehensive acreage reports. Regardless of what some of these AIP documents are saying, producers should have every confidence that FSA stands prepared to continue to accept the producer supplied aerial photos and complete the producer’s comprehensive acreage report.

Another topic of discussion was the inconsistency in 2-CRP regarding delegations of authority. Due to the restricted number of county committee meetings allowed a couple of years ago, the requirement for the COC to delegate contract approval to the CED was removed and authority was automatically granted to the CED. However, some sections of 2-CRP indicates that the CED can approve without the delegation of authority and other places it indicates the COC has to delegate authority. Since we are no longer restricted in holding county committee meetings, NASCOE was previously told the inconsistencies in 2-CRP would be corrected to show the COC needing to delegate authority to the CED.

We asked about the tree thinning initiative and were informed they are trying to finalize details. We are expecting to receive additional information soon.

National Notice PL-271 has been a major concern from the field. NASCOE had previously submitted questions to the national office through the program submission process. NASCOE learned that the issue was still under discussion and the effective date of February 26, 2016 would be delayed. More information is expected as it becomes available.

IT issues were a common theme in almost all of our discussions. Steve Peterson informed NASCOE that at the beginning of each day he gets a report from a staff member of what programs are experiencing problems. Their responsibility is to access each and every application to see if it is functional at the start of the day and report to him. Any deficiencies are immediately notified to the appropriate section for solutions.

Tonye Gross, ACRSI

We only had a few minutes to meet with Tonye because originally she was not scheduled to be in Washington during our visit. However, her travel plans changed and we were able to visit for a few minutes. We shared our concerns about the advertisements from some of the AIP’s. We thanked her again for letting NASCOE participate in the conference calls and we asked her for some talking points that NASCOE leaders can share with membership during our upcoming state conventions and area rallies. Tonye indicated she would provide a set of talking points and a short PowerPoint presentation for NASCOE to share with membership at the conventions.

Thomas Mulhern and Barbara Boyd from HRD

We would be remiss if we didn’t start this section of the notes out with an extra thank you to Thomas Mulhern and Barbara Boyd. Since this was our last meeting of the day, our 30 minutes scheduled meeting turned into a 2 hour discussion and we are grateful for the extra time given.

Our discussion began with an update of the CO hiring process. For the most part NASCOE had received positive comments about the CO hiring process and that the timeline of getting vacancies announced and filled had slightly improved. However, there have been isolated reports of lengthy delays in getting vacancy announcements advertised and positions filled. HRD informed us that there are 6 or 7 current vacancy coordinators and that 2 more were being added. They also reminded NASCOE these are not permanent positions and the vacancy coordinator responsibilities are collateral duties that are assigned in addition to their current obligations.

At our October meeting with HRD, we were informed that a contract had been awarded to develop the PT Aspiring Leadership Program. During our update on the status of this initiative we were informed that the contractor that had been awarded the initial contract was not performing as expected and was in the process of being replaced. While this will obviously delay the program being implemented we were assured the program development would proceed once the new contractor is selected.

We had a lengthy discussion with HRD on CO supervision of GS employees. While this discussion was prompted by a specific situation, the overall discussion was more general in nature. GS employees can supervise CO employees so why shouldn’t it work the other way also. The easy answer is that statute does not allow it so any changes to that will require some changes in the law. The discussion also revealed some potential unintended consequences since a change in the law would also subject CO supervisors to some of the constraints that exist on the GS side.

In summary, NASCOE was warmly welcomed by each and every person we visited while in Washington. It is a tremendous feeling to be able to freely discuss issues and solutions that can improve the service we provide to our producers while at the same time improve the working environment for employees. NASCOE would like to thank Administrator Dolcini and his entire team for their willingness to let us express membership’s thoughts and concerns.