In applying these principles to ERS, the report draws on the rich history of the agency and its predecessor, the BAE, on the mix of services currently provided by ERS and the way these services are changing, and on the various ways that research and information in support of public economic policy are produced and organized elsewhere in the federal government, the United States, and the world. Chapter 6 identifies four attributes of leading importance to most of the clients for most ERS services: timeliness, relevance, quality, and credibility. The report then poses the question, how should the production of information and research be administered by ERS management, so that it compares favorably with alternative arrangements, in all four attributes? Among a great number of possibilities, the potential answers include: do more of the same, do it differently or don't do it all. The outcomes are far from the same for different ERS services; for example, the implications for day-to-day staff analysis of current policy questions and for intermediate and long-term research, are quite different. In each case, however, the principle that potential vendors for all services must be competitive is maintained: no organization is ever given a permanent retainer for the provision of a service—whether it is a branch within an agency or an institution outside an agency.

The organizational framework within which a research and information agency in support of public economic policy is placed vitally affects its ability to marshal and administer its services effectively. This framework must cope with a tension that is evident in all government agencies charged with economic policy responsibilities and throughout the history of ERS. On one hand, the research and information produced or procured by such an agency must be relevant to the policy questions of the department in question. To this end, close contact with policy makers is important. On the other hand, politics involvement of researchers, and those administering research, is invariably damaging to the quality and credibility of the work in the long run (and often in the short run). The final chapter of the report applies the principles of evaluation and administration developed earlier to this question, making recommendations about the organization within USDA and for determining the size and scope of the responsibilities of ERS.

Throughout the report we address arrangements for producing research and information that will best serve public economic policy in general and federal economic policy for food, agriculture, and natural resources in particular. Pursuing the recommendations made here will require effort, perseverance, and time. The report provides a goal of achieving the best information and research support possible for economic policy within resource constraints. It provides a broad framework for achieving that goal. How that goal is pursued, and how long it will take to achieve, will depend in no small part on current political and economic considerations. Along the way, some of the goal, described here will not be met. It is the hope of the panel that identifying the goal will facilitate movement in its direction.

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