The Broadcasting Board of Governors – Cold Hard Cash

by The Federalist

Once again, senior agency officials stirred up a hornets nest with revelations of cash awards handed out in FY2010, especially to themselves.

Cash awards are not uncommon in the Federal Government. Information provided by sources shows that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) handed out numerous cash awards ranging from $100 to the largest of $10,000.

Cash awards are always highly charged matters. At the heart of it is whether or not the process is seen as fair and the recipients as deserving. As long as the agency puts money in the mix, these issues won’t go away. What makes these particularly worrisome is the following:

This is one of the worst agencies in the Federal Government. The agency has virtually institutionalized itself as a bottom dweller in the government-wide employee surveys of Federal workplaces. To all outward appearances, the BBG has had no significant impact on reversing the agency’s miserable showing in these surveys. Consistently, the agency is dead last in the category of Leadership and reinforces that position daily.

For example, agency officials, including those at the higher end of the awards pyramid, hold regular meetings with employee representatives. These meetings have only one useful purpose: they serve as a sterling demonstration of the chasm that separates these officials from the professional staff that does the real work of US international broadcasting. As we have noted before, these meetings are “motion without movement.” In terms of substance, they accomplish nothing of significance, certainly on threshold issues. They are an exercise in futility.

The employee representatives would be better served to exercise their rights under their contracts and the Federal Labor Relations Statute to hold the agency’s feet to the fire for the hostile work environment these officials have willfully constructed over the years. These employee representatives are also better served by their efforts to bring the issue of agency mismanagement out in front with the Congress and with the public. That is where the real productive work needs to be done. There is nothing to be accomplished inside the Cohen Building. These agency officials have consistently stonewalled any meaningful or legitimate process of getting to the substance of problems. The message to employee representatives: take matters elsewhere.

In addition, the Federal workforce is under a pay freeze for an indeterminate period of time. Some Members of Congress want the Federal workforce to take a 10 percent salary cut. When the BBG approves and hands out big cash awards to its senior officials – on top of everything else we’ve mentioned – it has the appearance and essentially the fact of getting around that pay freeze for a small and select group of already highly-paid individuals, particularly those who hold Senior Executive Service (SES) positions.

In one of its more recent press releases trumpeting its proposed reorganization of US international broadcasting, one of the features highlighted would be that the BBG’s new identity would be “more corporate in nature.”

“Corporate” is a bad word in today’s America. Corporate as in Enron, Lehman Brothers and others. Corporate as in Bank of America trying to rip off its depositors with new fees for using their own money. Corporate as in the astronomical bonuses corporate executives receive.

The corporate mentality is already well-entrenched among senior agency officials who were the beneficiaries of some hefty bonuses/cash awards in FY2010 and perhaps with more to come for FY2011. In many ways, the latest blow-up on management bonuses parallels that of the corporate world where executives receive lucrative bonuses while running various companies into the ground and putting employees out of work. The excesses we’ve come to know and expect from Wall Street appear to have taken root within the Cohen Building.

This isn’t the first time that senior agency officials find themselves riding in First Class on the gravy train. And you can best be assured that it won’t be the last if they have any say in the matter. And they most certainly do.

This is the kind of thing that enrages people, and not just inside the Cohen Building. Any congressional staffer can put together a spread sheet of agency employees and see how the awards were parsed out. On the one hand, they can see an employee at the lower end of the pay spread (around $40,000) getting no award while someone at the high end of the pay pyramid (over $170,000) pulls in an astounding award of $10,000. By nature – and the Cohen Building reaction proves this out – cash awards are divisive. They delineate haves and have-nots. They can be capricious, arbitrary and – at their worst – mercenary. Some employees are more adept at self-promotion while others show up day after day and get the job done without fanfare. Some managers and supervisors are more attentive to getting recognition for their employees. Others are not. Last but not least, senior officials hold an unfair advantage over everyone.

The Federalist is old school. The Federalist believes that government service is its own reward. Generally, BBG employees and officials are paid rather handsomely. As US Government employees, they have excellent retirement and health benefits that are the exception rather than the rule throughout the US. It is all fine and good to recognize employee contributions with plaques and the like. It is all fine and good to recognize superior performance with an in-grade step increase. Cash awards: not a good idea.

And what we see from the BBG is the potential for the worst of amoral corporate behavior being replicated inside the Federal Government with the manner in which these cash awards are handled.

Once again, keep in mind that at the end of the day, the BBG corporatists are planning to downsize US international broadcasting and bring on a reduction-in-force (RIF), the “blood on the floor” that VOA director David Ensor has referred to.

The BBG and its senior staff are presiding over a systematic attempt to cripple US international broadcasting. This effort is embodied in its alleged “strategic plan,” which we prefer to see in the context of the BBG/IBB “flim, flam plan.” This plan represents a serious danger to US national interests and national security. It is wholly reckless and irresponsible, making it something to be loathed, opposed and rejected.

The component parts of how the BBG intends to process this plan make it worse. At its core, the true result of this plan is to downsize US international broadcasting, wiping out virtually all effective direct broadcasting and relying upon the Internet as its sole source platform for audio, video and text. This includes strategic countries and regions where the Internet is not generally available or affordable or is being effectively blocked and will continue to be blocked for the foreseeable future. The BBG’s own “audience research” shows that its Internet following is a mere pittance of 10 million in world demographics. As we pointed out previously, in a world of 7 billion people that amounts to dust in the wind, something barely heard in the diverse and diffuse cacophony of what passes for global media in today’s world.

As part of the BBG’s “strategic destruction plan,” it has been noted that there will be demoralizing “staff disruptions.” That’s another way of saying that people are going to lose their jobs. The Deloitte consultant report acknowledges this (even if they haven’t figured out or know how this will be executed) and urges the Board to conduct its decimation of the workforce as quickly as possibly (of course, leaving surviving workforce more demoralized and traumatized). VOA director David Ensor has also graphically made the point by saying that there will be, “Blood on the floor.”

This is the hostile and corrosive work environment of US international broadcasting. These parallel tracks of senior officials getting large cash awards and pursuing what we see as a damaging reorganization intending to reduce the effectiveness of US Government international broadcasting that leave people to question the propriety of the corporate-like behavior of senior agency officials.

If the process of cash awards continues, the BBG needs to be asking itself some serious questions and put in place some mandatory controls in order to be open, transparent and accountable. It should be asking the following kinds of questions being asked by agency employees – and others – and getting real answers, not IBB mumbo-jumbo:

• Who approved these awards?

• Who nominated the individual awardees?

• On what basis were individuals judged to be deserving?

• Are the criteria for these awards available publicly?

• How was a conflict of interest avoided, particularly for the group of awardees who hold senior official positions? How will conflict of interest issues be avoided in the future?

• How are the dollar amounts of awards calculated?

• What are the guidelines for making these awards public and transparent?

• How does the BBG intend to limit the size of awards to senior officials particularly when juxtaposed to lesser salaries of lower paid agency employees?

• Were these awards given as “Superior Achievement Awards?” What is the narrative given to justify this kind of award to the specific individual?

• If these awards/bonuses were approved by members of the BBG, what was the written explanation submitted to justify these awards and by whom?

• Have awards been approved for FY2011? How are these awards funded?

If the BBG can’t – or won’t – be responsive to these questions, it speaks volumes to a practice that has been corrupted.

There is quite a lot not to like about the conduct of US international broadcasting by the BBG/IBB. This awards issue doesn’t improve the picture at all. It is not a personal play toy for a handful of individuals who, to appearances, use it as an opportunistic tool for self-aggrandizement. US strategic interests are hard-pressed on many fronts. The collapse of US international broadcasting – which has already been set in motion and which the BBG/IBB plans for the future – makes the national interests and US national security all the more vulnerable.

On that leadership issue: the BBG should learn from what the Social Security Administration did for FY2010. Cash awards for its SES officials: $0.
US international broadcasting needs leadership which raises the bar on professional standards, not lowers it to a vehicle for facilitating personal greed and avarice.

The Federalist
December 8, 2011

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The Broadcasting Board of Governors – Cold Hard Cash

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