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How USDA Farm Service Agency Saved Millions and Reached More Stakeholders

fsa_gb_20090316_jpgAt this year’s annual Digital Communications Tour stop in Washington DC, officials from three government agencies presented to hundreds of their peers on the latest innovations in digital communications in federal government. Below is a snapshot from the panel session highlighting Kent Politsch, Chief of Public Affairs for the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), and how the agency is dealing with new legislation, driving ROI and increasing stakeholder engagement. The answers below have been edited for brevity and context.

 FSA was waiting for vital legislation (the Farm Bill) to pass in Congress. Maintaining communications to help better serve stakeholders was no easy task.

KP: The farm bill is far more expansive than just protecting farmers and ranchers. In September of 2011, the money to fund disaster assistance for farmers and ranchers ran out. Since then, farmers and ranchers have been operating only on insurance; they have not been able to get protections. In the meantime we’ve gone through the worst drought period this century. When farmers and ranchers are experiencing drought, they’re desperate. Their margins of profit are slim. If they go through a period of time without protections from the government, then they go out of business. If you’re wondering why you’re seeing hamburger and beef prices rising fairly rapidly right now, it’s because all of the ranchers had to sell their cattle during the drought because they couldn’t afford to feed them.

Our part of it is figuring out how to better support and protect the farmer and rancher from disasters and ensuring sustainable farming for the future. As communicators we had to try to tell them about different programs they might use to bridge this time period before Congress could come up with a new law.

So we produced information about how to temporarily protect farmers from these issues. We had to communicate to the producers about the protections that were still available while we waited two and a half years for a Farm Bill to pass.

Facing tightening budgets, FSA was required by Congress to cut departmental costs, so the agency moved its paper processes to digital to save millions of dollars.

KP: We had been using paper and the U.S. Postal Service to communicate since the 1930s, but Congress came to us and said we’ve got to stop spending money, so the first thing we did was cut off the distribution of paper.

It meant three million dollars [in return on investment]. That’s how much money we were spending distributing paper. GovDelivery became the solution. We’re distributing digital newsletters on a monthly basis to every state and county in the nation now and let me tell you it costs a lot less than three million dollars.

As FSA waited for legislation to pass and started migrating paper processes to digital, the agency worked to deliver the same level of service to its stakeholders digitally to ensure every farmer and rancher was informed.

KP: There’s legislation that says we are responsible as the Farm Service Agency to communicate to farmers and ranchers on a monthly basis. When we stopped sending paper notices we had to ask ourselves, how are we going to keep our obligations to regularly communicate to the farmers about programs? We looked at GovDelivery, which at the time was distributing our news releases, and we said well maybe we can use this tool to communicate to our farmers and ranchers.

The problem was whether or not there was strong enough broadband in all of these places to make it work. So we worked with other agencies and encouraged them to expand broadband. They came up with the policies and money, so now we can reach those farmers better.

A farmer gets up at five in the morning, he doesn’t return home until the work is done, which is generally after sunset, so how do you reach him? You generally reach him with a cell phone today. So we’re in the process of converting as much of the information that we distribute through GovDelivery to mobile, so when a farmer is in his pickup or in his tractor he can get the information he needs instantly to make the decisions he needs to make.

When the farm bill passed, FSA needed to communicate quickly with its stakeholders on new programs. Using digital communications, they were able to turn this around on a tight timeline.

KP: When the farm bill passed, the Secretary of Agriculture wanted us to get the disaster programs up for livestock producers within 60 days. We used the news releases and fact sheets we were already sending through GovDelivery  to inform producers within the 60 day deadline. It normally would have taken us a minimum of six months. As we send out information to these livestock producers, who are often new customers to us, we’re also signing them up for more of our GovDelivery messages.

FSA boosts the number of ranchers and farmers it reaches with its digital communications by cross-promoting topics with other federal agencies through the GovDelivery Network (for more information on the Network, check out this video).

KP: We’re getting 12,000 subscribers from ChooseMyPlate.org, 4,000 from the Department of Interior, and so on. We know that people are signing up for updates when they sign up for updates from other GovDelivery clients, and those clients are also getting new people subscribing through our sign-up process, so it’s a mutually beneficial situation.

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Get more information on improving stakeholder engagement in government, view our new infographic on “the engaged citizen.”