WASHINGTON — Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Aug. 9 announced changes at the US Dept. of Agriculture affecting the Economic Research Service.

Under the plan, the ERS will align once again with the Office of the Chief Economist under the Office of the Secretary. Additionally, most ERS and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) employees will relocate outside the National Capital Region. The USDA said the employee relocations are expected to be completed by the end of next year.

“It’s been our goal to make USDA the most effective, efficient, and customer-focused department in the entire federal government,” Perdue said. “In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers and for the taxpayers of the United States. In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services.”

Similarities between the missions of the ERS and the OCE underpins the rationale behind the realignment, the USDA said.

“ERS studies and anticipates trends and emerging issues, while OCE advises the Secretary and Congress on the economic implications of policies and programs,’’ the USDA said. “These two agencies were aligned once before, and bringing them back together will enhance the effectiveness of economic analysis at USDA.”

Regarding the relocation, the USDA said recruiting and retaining qualified staff has become challenging because of the high cost of living in Washington and long commutes. Additionally, the relocation will move USDA resources closer to food and agricultural stakeholders. Finally, the USDA said the move will benefit taxpayers due to expected employment cost and rent savings, helping with retention longer term even in the face of tightening budgets.

Early/voluntary retirement programs may be part of the reorganization plan, the USDA said.

“No ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated,” the USDA said. “Every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most. Employees will be offered relocation assistance and will receive the same base pay as before, and the locality pay for the new location. For those who are interested, USDA is seeking approval from the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget for both voluntary early retirement authority and voluntary separation incentive payments.”

Perdue said the move in no way reflects upon work done by the USDA staff.

“In fact, I frequently tell my Cabinet colleagues that USDA has the best workforce in the federal government,” Perdue said. “These changes are more steps down the path to better service to our customers and will help us fulfill our informal motto to ‘Do right, and feed everyone.’”

Perdue has made other changes at USDA during his tenure. In May 2017, he created the first Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs and made shifts in the Farm Production and Conservation mission area. A few months later he realigned several offices to enhance customer service and maximize efficiency.