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In his 2018 New Year’s message, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced an accountability initiative that left current and former federal workers scratching their heads.

“So from today forward, you will hear all of USDA leadership, from the Office of the Secretary on down, begin to refer to us as OneUSDA,” Perdue said in a video released on Tuesday, Jan. 2. “Not as APHIS or as the Forest Service, not as Rural Development or as FAS, and not as distinct agencies sitting in the same office, like FSA, RMA, and NRCS. [See related list of all the USDA agencies.]

“No, instead, we are going to be one team all working toward the same goals: OneUSDA. You may ask, and fairly so, ‘What does this mean for me?’ ” 

Perdue said more details will come over the next days, weeks and months.

A USDA spokesman said the move did not involve changing any agency names, logos or branding. It would not resemble the 2013 effort to standardize USDA logos and do away with the Forest Service's traditional pine tree symbol.

“We’re feeling that the narrative has been diluted quite a bit,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified by name. “When you ask people what it is that USDA does, 95 percent of time farming comes out. The general public doesn’t recognize that we’re also funding for hospitals, and providing police resources, or accomplishing restoration efforts with the Forest Service. All they think about is agriculture.”

National Association of Forest Service Retirees Board Chairman Jim Caswell said the announcement’s meaning was unclear.

“We’re trying to be as supportive as we can be,” Caswell said of the 700-member national organization. “Nobody should argue about good teamwork. But we’re opposed to some kind of massive change in agency identity. When people want to know something about the national forest, they’re going to call the Forest Service, not the USDA. I don’t know if this is a tempest in a teapot or something you don’t want to get bogged down in.”

Retired Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love said the Department of Agriculture has an image dating back to its origin under President Abraham Lincoln as “the People’s Department.”

“There’s always been pride in the department about that direct relationship with the people,” Love said. “I try to be positive about people’s motives. This may be trying to create unity and pride in the Department of Agriculture.”

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In a second part of the video on Thursday, Perdue said he was following the example of teamwork in the basketball movie “Hoosiers” to encourage more cooperative activity within his department.

“Some changes may be drastically different than the old way of doing things, and that’s OK,” Perdue said. He called for changes to a “cumbersome, labor-intensive and costly departmental directive review process," an enhanced secretary’s award program, amendments to the department’s employee teleworking program, and to change human resources and general counsel policies for employees and supervisors.

The Washington Post reported on Dec. 30 that the Agriculture and Commerce departments planned to cut teleworking by up to half the amount of hours previously allowed. The Agriculture Department had virtually no change in its staffing employment during President Donald Trump’s first nine months in office, compared to a 2.3 percent increase during former President Barack Obama’s new administration.

Overall, the federal workforce has shed about 16,000 of its permanent workers since January 2017, for a total workforce of 1.94 million.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.