Farm Loan and Conservation Services Back to Customer Experience Profiles Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area, Department of Agriculture Executive Summary Data Highlights Customer Experience Insights Delivering Services Equitably Leading Customer Experience Practices The Farm Production and Conservation mission area at USDA provides farm loans, conservation services and other assistance to farmers, ranchers and other stewards of private agricultural lands. USDA customers appreciate the agency’s commitment to providing personalized services and up-to-date information—whether in service centers across the country or online on Farmers.gov—that helps producers decide which agency programs are right for them. Despite these successes, customers feel that some agency processes, such as multiple applications that require the same information, take too long or are redundant. To address this issue, USDA is working on improving coordination among the agencies within the Farm Production and Conservation mission area to streamline services and reduce complexity. Service Overview Primary customers Agricultural producers, including farmers, ranchers, foresters, specialty growers, tribes and tribal governments. Customers range in age, farming experience and the type of farm they operate. Key services related to farm loan and conservation services (all data for fiscal year 2020) The Farm Production and Conservation mission area delivers services through three agencies: Farm Service Agency, which provides farm loans for real estate and operations to start, maintain or expand a family-sized farm. It offers direct loans up to a combined $1 million and guaranteed loans up to $1.8 million. 34,986 loans distributed, totaling $7.5 billion in direct and guaranteed farm loans. Direct and guaranteed loan assistance to “beginning farmers” totaled $3.4 billion. Natural Resources Conservation Service, which offers programs to provide financial and technical assistance.Technical assistance services offered by local service centers to help landowners and producers with their natural resource management and conservation practices, ranging from natural resources assessments to expertise and advice on how to protect water and air quality.More than 500,000 customers served, helping to boost agricultural productivity.120,000 conservation assessments and plans developed for producers to implement on more than 53 million acres. Financial assistance programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, that help producers protect natural resources and the environment. Risk Management Agency, which mitigates farming risks by developing policies on crop insurance and regulating insurance that private entities offer to agricultural producers. FPAC delivers online services through Farmers.gov, which customers use to manage individual accounts, submit some signed documents and access services. Service Snapshot 3,151,430 visits to Farmers.gov between October 2020 and June 2021. 2,450+ service centers across the country. Data Highlights visits to Farmers.gov in fiscal year 2020. farm loans delivered in fiscal year 2020. farmers received conservation services in fiscal year 2020. Customer Experience Insights Improvement from last year Room for improvement Streamlined application and reporting processes would reduce redundancy for customers. When applying for more than one program or service within FPAC, producers are often required to provide some of the same information numerous times for each agency, which is inefficient and time-consuming, and from the customers’ perspective, can seem unnecessary. To address this, USDA is continuing to examine how different programs and services within FPAC can more closely coordinate to streamline application processes. For example, in spring 2021 the Risk Management Agency opened the Pandemic Cover Crop Program to help producers maintain cover crop systems during the economic challenges of the pandemic.1 At the same time, producers who received FSA services were completing annual acreage reports. To streamline the experience for customers, the two agencies coordinated so that the acreage information producers provided to FSA—the same information RMA needed to evaluate eligibility for the new program—was automatically sent to RMA without producers needing to complete additional forms. This enabled customers to access services from both RMA and FSA without having to provide the same information multiple times, and agency leadership noted that uptake of this new program was widespread because it was easier to apply. Customers would like quicker decisions on their applications for direct loans. Average Direct Loan Processing Time by Fiscal Year 20172018201920202021 Number of days3130323436 In 2021, direct farm loans took 36 days to process, on average. Customers would like faster decisions to speed up loan processing times, according to agency staff members. To address this issue, the FSA is investing in modernized IT systems to improve the services it can offer online and the ability of staff to process loans. Planned online service improvements include an interactive online loan application and other self-service capabilities, such as loan repayment. These new IT systems will also enable employees to process loans more quickly by replacing current paper-based processes. The agency is also focusing on helping more customers access farm loan programs by training staff to collaborate with producers to develop tailored credit options and help them meet program requirements. “If that producer is doing something that was intended to qualify them for programs or benefits, we should be finding them a pathway towards program participation,” said Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the FSA. Customers appreciate the tools and information available on Farmers.gov but would like some processes streamlined. Farmers.gov provides information and self-service tools that help customers decide what USDA programs and services might be right for their situation. The agency also rolls out new tools every few months to meet customer needs or as new programs become available. During the pandemic, for example, the agency quickly built a new tool to help customers navigate the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2, a program for producers facing market disruptions because of the pandemic. Once launched, the tool quickly became the most-used feature on Farmers.gov—meeting the urgent need of producers looking to understand the new program. Despite these successes, agency leaders acknowledge that customers would like some of the website’s features to be streamlined. For example, some producers find the current procedures to log-in to their Farmers.gov accounts too cumbersome and would like easier access to online services.2 Applications for some USDA programs are also unavailable through Farmers.gov. In response to these concerns, the agency is looking at ways to simplify the website’s log-in feature and increase the number of tasks customers can complete online. Customers value a highly personalized service delivery approach. Because farmers who seek help from USDA have different needs and situations, field staff members are trained to provide tailored services and build personal relationships. They recognize that some producers may want frequent and in-depth support, while others only want to contact the agency when applying for a loan. To capitalize on field staff members’ experience in providing personalized services, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is launching an Employee Innovation Portal to collect information about new ways field staff members find to serve customers. The portal will enable staff at service centers around the country to learn about their peers’ innovations and spread best practices for serving customers. An initial 30-day pilot of this new portal resulted in nearly 40 submissions from NRCS staff, including plain language communication resources, improvements for training staff and other innovations. The agency is now reviewing these submissions before implementing them to ensure they will meet customer needs. Delivering Farm Loan and Conservation Services Equitably Historically underserved communities have long faced barriers when accessing USDA programs. This year the agency has strongly expressed its intention to end discriminatory practices and pioneered several initiatives to tackle this problem. The agency has vowed to integrate equity considerations into all of its work. The Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovation Production (OUAIP) was created within NRCS, as the agency recognized that farmers in urban communities may not fully take advantage of USDA’s resources and may need extra focus. OUAIP works directly with urban agriculture stakeholders, community leaders, and in collaboration with other federal departments and local resources to expand efforts of urban, indoor, and other emerging agricultural practices including community gardens, urban farms, rooftop gardens, outdoor vertical production, green walls, indoor farms, greenhouses, high-tech vertical technology farms, hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic farm facilities. In September 2021 USDA announced its plans to establish an Equity Commission that will be tasked with “identifying USDA programs, policies, systems, structures, and practices that contribute to barriers to inclusion or access, systemic discrimination, or exacerbate or perpetuate racial, economic, health and social disparities.” In interviews with the Partnership for Public Service, representatives of all agencies providing farm programs and farm loan and conservation services shared plans for continuing direct outreach to communities and expanding their efforts beyond existing customers to those who could benefit from USDA programs. The agencies also collaborate with local organizations to facilitate community outreach. Entities they work with include National Young Farmers Coalition, Rural Coalition, Farmers Legal Action Group, Intertribal Agriculture Council, Indian Land Tenure Foundation, U.S. Cattlemen, Livestock Marketers Association, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Hmong American Farmers Association and several universities. USDA leaders stressed the importance of sincere communication and using plain language in order to rebuild people’s trust and facilitate access. There are still challenges in USDA equity-driven initiatives that need to be addressed. In March 2021 an approximately $4 billion debt relief program for socially disadvantaged farmers was enacted by Congress in the American Rescue Plan Act. The funds were aimed at addressing the lingering effects of discrimination in farm loan programs' lending. However, preliminary injunctions issued in federal district court lawsuits have halted the debt relief payments that were to be issued. Leading Customer Experience Practices The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget. Organizational Commitment Organizational Commitment A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress. The agency: 1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Yes USDA’s strategic plan includes a goal to “Ensure USDA programs are delivered efficiently, effectively, and with integrity and a focus on customer service.” 2. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance. No While the agency’s strategic plan includes performance measures related to service delivery, it does not include any measures based on customer feedback. 3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization. Yes USDA has a chief customer experience officer who leads customer experience efforts across the department. Ease of Customer Interactions Ease of Customer Interactions Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs. For the most common services provided, customers can: 1. Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice. Partially Customers can view their farm loans online. Many farm program application processes can be started online and many other tasks completed on Farmers.gov, but some programs require original signatures or visits to service centers to submit forms. As a result of the pandemic, the agency began to accept online signatures and adopt secure file-sharing for multiple programs. 2. Obtain status updates through online self-service. Partially Through a feature on Farmers.gov, some but not all agricultural producers can view loan information, history and payments for USDA farm loans. 3. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media. Partially Farmers.gov social media accounts occasionally respond to customer questions and comments on Twitter and Facebook. 4. Access online information and support in languages other than English. Yes Resources on Farmers.gov are available in 12 languages, although the scope of the content is different depending on the language. Local USDA Service Centers offer free interpretation services for some USDA programs and assistance. Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback. The agency: 1. Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public. Yes USDA collects and publicly shares customer experience data for its online services, in line with OMB guidance. 2. Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words. Yes USDA collects first-hand customer feedback through web surveys, targeted surveys and direct interviews with customers. 3. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it. Yes USDA aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs. The agency’s web team monitors and acts on feedback weekly, and data is shared quarterly with FPAC leadership and other relevant staff. Back to Customer Experience Profiles Footnotes and Methodology Footnote USDA Pandemic Cover Crop Program. Retrieved from https://www.farmers.gov/cover-crops. Farm Service Agency 2020 Customer Experience Action Plan. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3bm1Oyr. Customer experience indicators methodology The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget. Organizational Commitment A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress. The agency: Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals. Criteria: a) customer experience with the agency’s services is listed in the strategic plan as one of the organization’s top priorities, or a supporting goal of one of the priorities b) the strategic plan provides specific actions the agency will take to improve customer experience Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance. Criteria: There is a performance measure included in the agency’s strategic plan, annual performance report or agency priority goals that is based on feedback directly from customers. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s organizational chart and online descriptions of leadership positions, the agency has an executive who meets the following criteria: a) customer experience is that executive’s primary responsibility b) the executive reports to the head of the organization or a deputy c) the executive’s work spans all major service delivery channels (e.g., online services, contact centers, face-to-face services). Ease of Customer Interactions Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs. For the most common services provided, customers can: Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice. Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers have multiple options to complete common transactions including going online, calling, using webchat and visiting field offices or other physical locations. Obtain status updates through online self-service. Criteria: customers can get real-time updates through an online self-service channel that provides estimated timelines. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media. Criteria: Does the agency respond to questions through the direct message feature on Facebook and Twitter, or in the comment section of posts? To assess this, we examined social media posts on the service’s primary account across a three-month period. “No” indicates the agency never or rarely responds to comments; “partially” indicates the agency responds sometimes, but not consistently; and “yes” indicates the agency responds to comments on a frequent and consistent basis. Access online information and support in languages other than English. Criteria: “No” indicates content is available only in English and translation features are not available on the website; “partially” indicates that some content or services are available in English and Spanish; “yes” indicates that content or services are available in English and Spanish and additional languages. Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback. The agency: Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public. Criteria: In alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, the agency shares customer feedback with the public and that: a) represents multiple service delivery channels b) provides details into different aspects of the experience (i.e., beyond overall customer satisfaction) Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words. Criteria: In alignment with Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on customer experience measurement, in customer or user research such as interviews, focus groups, surveys and other feedback mechanisms, customers can describe their experiences in their own words, and the agency has automated analytic capabilities to identify and act on insights that emerge from customer feedback data. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it. Criteria: Agency has an automated system to collect feedback across multiple channels and programs into a centralized location, analyze it for insights, and share those insights with relevant agency business owners or other appropriate colleagues responsible for taking action. The agency also tracks the impact of actions taken in response to customer feedback. This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.