BBG Watch Guest Commentary
BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from a current Voice of America journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.
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Voice of America senior leaders must leave to make VOA effective and improve morale
By A Voice of America Journalist
US international media’s CEO-designate Andy Lack almost surely by now knows about the BBG 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVPS) results, released late last week (late Friday to minimize bad press publicity). Perhaps he has even read them, or at minimum the Broadcasting Board of Governor’s press release about the survey results in which the writer tried desperately to put lipstick on a pig. Better-known as the morale rankings, the survey has consistently shown employee morale at VOA at or near the bottom for federal agencies its size since the year the surveys began.
The survey is conducted annually by the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM). It is given only to employees; as has been pointed out elsewhere, results would almost certainly be worse if contractors (who are paid less and treated worse than employees) were included. This year, despite numerous promises and efforts to improve the rankings, they declined. In some cases, according to the BBG’s own press release, the organization “saw significant decreases (a difference of 5 percentage points or more) on 14 survey questions related to employee involvement in decision making, employee recognition, and overall job and organizational satisfaction. While the agency continued to see modest increases in responses related to work/life programs, there were declines in areas that are persistent challenges, including leadership (emphasis added).
I guess we should have seen this coming. The much-ballyhooed Workplace Engagement Initiative has been a spectacular failure, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. We knew the agency’s current leadership is either unable to create morale-boosting programs or unwilling to do so. And so the results produce a sigh of resignation, but some anger, too.
That VOA has consistently been at the bottom of the rankings is not news. But over the past year, after much prodding from inside and outside the building, the agency’s leaders finally made a stab (half-hearted and poorly implemented, but a stab nonetheless) at trying to improve morale. Not surprisingly, given their incompetence at their day jobs, the effort failed. The agency’s leaders over-promised, under-delivered and, in the process, infuriated employees who had been led to believe that this time the agency’s senior leaders really, truly were serious about improving morale. The effort was announced in a town hall meeting by VOA Director David Ensor. It lasted for a few months then, predictably, faded. He had chosen, despite advice to the contrary, to put in charge of the WE change committees the very leaders who were most responsible for the sorry state in which the agency now finds itself. He was told the effort would fail for a number of reasons, chief among them that the perpetrators of the agency’s decline had been put in the position of advocating a reversal of many of the very policies they had instituted and still supported. The usual cast of characters from the agency were put in place as facilitators (don’t these people have anything else to do but facilitate meetings?). Committee meetings were held. Papers were written. Recommendations were made. And virtually nothing of substance happened.
Worse, the agency paid the Partnership for Public Service $84,000 to help improve morale and train facilitators. That is almost exactly the annual salary of a GS-12 reporter or producer. Just think about all the content that reporter could have produced! Alternatively, we could have laid out the $84,000 in the bathrooms of the agency and used it for toilet paper. At least then we would have put it to good use. Somebody ought to have the guts to ask the PPS for a refund. I was going to suggest a do-over, but considering the results, that’s the last thing we should be doing. That would be the very definition of insanity. Let’s not pay the PPS another dime.
As to the specifics of the survey…
Fewer than 29% of respondents believe that work promotions in their unit are based on merit, and only 23.85% believe steps are taken to deal with poor performers. Only 45.20% believe they can “disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” (That is not surprising, given the agency’s long, ignominious record or retaliation against those who criticize it.) The agency continued to score low in “personal empowerment with respect to work processes,” recognition “for providing high quality products and services,” and being rewarded for “creativity and innovation.”
Perceptions of senior leaders are in the tank. Fewer than 30% of respondents said senior leaders “generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.” Only 29.81% said they were “satisfied with the policies and practices” of the agency’s senior leaders. (These were among the lowest positive rankings in the entire survey.) Just 37% said the agency’s senior leaders “maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.” And fewer than 40% said they have “a high level of respect” for the agency’s senior leaders. These are deeply troublesome scores. People are not going to follow leaders who do not motivate them and whom they do not believe are honest or worthy of respect. Improving morale begins with having leaders employees will follow.
The survey shows that senior leaders are spending way too much time on efforts that are benefitting a small number of employees and not enough time on efforts that benefit the majority. More than a third of respondents said they had not been notified of their eligibility to telework. Almost ten percent were not sure if they were. Telework is a proven morale-booster, yet more than 4 in 10 of the respondents aren’t teleworking. More than 19% said they had not been approved to telework, even though they have the kind of job that allows for teleworking. Less than 19% take advantage of alternate work schedules even though AWS is, like telework, a proven morale-booster. Much has been made of the health and wellness programs, but only one in four respondents said they have participated. About 2% participate in the agency’s child care program or elder care program. (Fewer than 38% of respondents said they were satisfied with the agency’s child care programs; fix that or you’ll never be able to recruit and retain young people.)
Sixty-nine percent of eligible employees completed the survey, down slightly from the year before (1,051 responded out of 1,530 surveys sent out). The rankings are interesting, but equally so is the demographic information revealed by the survey. The agency is overwhelmingly white (55%) and majority male (58%). Despite being in an area where many discharged and retired veterans live, fewer than 11% are veterans. Almost half of those responding are GS-13 and above. Forty-one percent have been federal employees more than 20 years; a third of the respondents have been at the agency more than 20 years. Worse, in a media landscape dominated by youth, and with the agency’s target audience almost exclusively under 25, less than one half of one percent of the survey respondents at in the target age group. Less than 12% are in their 30s. Ninety percent of the respondents are 40 or older, and almost 25% are over age 60! Less than 2% are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
All of these numbers, I would posit, are almost exactly the opposite demographic picture a media organization needs in order to succeed today: top heavy and unable or unwilling to speak to the group that the agency most needs to reach. This is one of the agency’s least commented-upon but most damaging issues. We do not reflect in any important way our target audience. We do not speak their youth-oriented language. We do not care about the issues they care about. We do not consume news the way they consume news. Our target audience is, for the most part, alien to us. We are not them and we do not know how to serve them. And we have somehow made them feel unwelcome in our agency.
In weeks to come, OPM will release additional information that will give us a look deeper into the organization. (Or, as the BBG press release put it: “OPM is expected to release additional data for the BBG and the rest of the government that provides useful context and detail later this month. The results will continue to shape the agency’s ongoing efforts to improve workplace engagement.”)
It is highly likely that Central News, the English Division and Learning English will suffer precipitous drops. Will the leaders of those groups suffer any consequences? If Andy Lack is serious about making changes, he will closely examine the newsroom, the English Division and Learning English. He will meet with their leaders and employees (separately, of course). I have no doubt he will be horrified by the quality of the leaders of those groups. We can only hope that he will move swiftly to make changes. Granted, firing top managers because an organization is suffering from poor morale is not a miracle cure; it won’t cause an improvement in morale overnight. But it’s a start.
Members of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Interim Management Team and the Board of Governors are said to know who the incompetent leaders are but are concerned about removing them because they fear a vacuum. That is a legitimate concern, but one is compelled to ask: Would a vacuum be any worse than what we have now? Isn’t a neutral better than a negative? Isn’t a zero better than a -100? And, truth be told, the existence of a vacuum — the lack of trained, ready-to-go seconds in command — is proof of incompetence on the part of the agency’s leaders. No good organization is without a leadership development program (only about a third of survey respondents said their training needs had been assessed and fewer than 40% said they were satisfied with the training they receive for their present job). No good organization is without a plan to have successors in place, ready to go in the event of a termination, death, transfer, resignation or retirement. That’s just plain good management. That VOA lacks such plans shows the depth of the mismanagement and incompetence so many have criticized the agency for.
Will things change? Doubtful. Why? Only 44% of those who responded said they believed the results of the survey would be used to make the agency a better place to work. They’re probably right, given that previous dreadful results didn’t make a difference. Another reason? The agency’s leaders know employees aren’t going anywhere: Almost 70% said they were not considering leaving the agency within the next year, even though fewer than 43% said they were satisfied with their job and just 40.06% said they would recommend BBG/VOA as a place to work. Fewer than 30% said they were leaving, either to retire or to take another job in the federal government or outside the federal government. So, we’re not leaving (and why should we? 86% of us said we like the work we do, 69% said our work gives us a feeling of personal accomplishment and 90% believe the work we do is important).
Barring wholesale changes at the top, the agency’s senior leaders aren’t leaving either (in fact, as they surely must know, they have nowhere else to go; they are unemployable outside the agency — whatever skills they may have had have atrophied to the point of irrelevance, and other federal agencies will not take on leaders from such a tainted agency). So, what do we do? Revolution. From within. Take back our agency. Name names. File lawsuits. Make complaints. Document and publicize incompetence. Demand accountability. Expose malfeasance and poor judgment. Force the agency’s senior leaders out and demand a youth movement. Support the agency’s unions. Ask for meetings with the governors and staff and members of Congress. Submit columns to BBG Watch.
The agency’s senior leaders have had chance after chance after chance. They’ve failed. It’s time for them to go. If the lowered morale rankings that followed a two-year long effort to improve morale don’t expose the agency’s senior leaders’ incompetence, nothing will. Finally, we have the incontrovertible, indisputable evidence we need: VOA is lousy with ineffective, incompetent, insecure, unimaginative and unworthy leaders. VOA was once a great agency. It can be again. But not with the leaders it has now. Ball’s in your court, Mr. Lack.
Significant Declines in OPM 2014 Employee Survey for BBG Senior Leaders’ Skills and Agency Management (Federal Government Entities Only)
I recommend my organization as a good place to work. 6.36% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce. 2.89% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
My organization’s leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity. 4.79% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders. 6.22% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work? 6.78% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization? 2.27% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job? 5.96% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders? 3.9% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job? 5.16% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
I have sufficient resources (for example, people, materials, budget) to get my job done. 2014 Percent Positive: 29.60%. 2013 Percent Positive: 35.12% 5.52% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Promotions in my work are based on merit. 2014 Percent Positive: 28.15%. 2013 Percent Positive: 28.52% 0.37% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Creativity and innovation are rewarded. 2014 Percent Positive: 28.47%. 2013 Percent Positive: 30.11% 1.64% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
In my work unit, steps are taken yo deal with a poor performer who cannot or will not improve. 2014 Percent Positive: 23.85%. 2013 Percent Positive: 25.28% 1.43% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
I can disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal. 2014 Percent Positive: 45.20%. 2013 Percent Positive: 46.69% 1.49% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs. 2014 Percent Positive: 14.61%. 2013 Percent Positive: 15.38% 0.77% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
BROADCASTING BOARD OF GOVERNORS
2013 AND 2014 FEDERAL EMPLOYEE VIEWPOINT SURVEY RESULTS COMPARED
Recommend Organization As A Good Place to Work
6.36% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Commitment Of Senior Leaders To Workforce
2.89% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
High Standards Of Honesty And Integrity By Organization’s Leaders
4.79% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Respect for Senior Leaders
6.22% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
6.78% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Information Sharing By Management
2.27% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Management Recognition of Employee Achievement
5.96% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Employee Satisfaction With Policies and Practices of Senior Leaders
3.9% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Employee Job Satisfaction
5.16% Decline Between 2013 and 2014
Employee Satisfaction With Organization
5.07% Decline Between 2013 and 2014