This commentary was sent to BBG Watch by VOA broadcaster who must remain anonymous.
The Voice of America, the United States’ international government broadcaster is, we are promised, in the throes of change that will be far-reaching and will right a ship that has been listing for many years, a list that has accelerated recently. At least some of the agency’s many venal and incompetent managers will be transferred out of positions of responsibility, demoted or jettisoned, we are told; and leaders with no vision or inspirational qualities (most of the agency’s managers seem to qualify on that score) will be shown the door, or at least sent to live out their working years in a nice office in the agency’s infamous “Hall of No Jobs” (an actual place in the VOA building near Capitol Hill where GS-13s and above who are at long last judged incompetent are sent until they get the message and retire; they are generally given a very nice sendoff, and many people say nice things about them, and they are never heard from again).
Long seen as an underperforming, damaged, dysfunctional and embarrassing agency (then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called its then-governing board “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world”) and led by painfully inept managers (to call them “leaders” is to do violence to the concept of leadership), the agency is facing a hostile and disgusted Congress that has so little confidence in its ability to do its job that one member has written a bill that would de-fund the agency. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has passed by a unanimous vote a bill that would dramatically reform the country’s international broadcasters; the bill contains language sharply critical of VOA and its managers to such an extent that, if they had any shame, the agency’s leaders would resign. The agency’s budget is attacked every year as Congress shows its revulsion with the once-respected broadcaster by slowly strangling it, but only because the support is not yet there for de-federalizing or de-funding it.
In July 2013, at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) said
HOUSE FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN REP. ED ROYCE: “It is time to…ask if our resources — nearly $750 million annually — are being spent wisely. Are we getting what we need from these broadcasting efforts? We aren’t, and it is time for broad reforms; ‘tinkering’ and ‘band-aid’ solutions are not an option, because the stakes are too great.”
Some months ago, the Voice of America’s respected, longtime Chief White House Correspondent resigned in disgust after 34 years at the Agency. In a lengthy and stinging letter to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Dan Robinson wrote:
FORMER VOA WHITE HOUSE AND FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT DAN ROBINSON: “(A)t times I was frequently embarrassed to be representing this organization at the White House, on a day-to-day basis. It is my assessment that VOA’s plummeting reputation and ongoing management issues severely impacted our access when it came to news coverage and presidential interviews.”
The agency finds itself plagued by arrogant, unfriendly and distant managers who are intensely disliked by the rank and file — who consider them bereft of vision or leadership skills and antagonistic to employees. These employees believe the agency’s leaders were promoted because of their (limited) technical competence rather than any demonstrated record of leadership. Despite some efforts to improve the culture, the agency is seen as punitive, and unfriendly to its employees. VOA’s managers bristle at even the most innocuous criticism and are shocked and offended by tough questions. They often charge their critics with “insubordination” when they dare to ask why the agency is in such bad shape. Staff meetings are expected to be love-fests, with no real criticisms expected or allowed.
Many of VOA’s managers have been at the agency for 20 or 30 years or more and have become insulated from the realities of the news business, out of touch with advances in commercial broadcasting and intellectually and professionally flabby after decades in the warm embrace of federal employment in an agency that virtually never fires even the worst managers — it just transfers them elsewhere in the agency, to do damage to another part of the organization. They live in a world where performance has become divorced from pay, power and promotion all the while claiming the agency practices accountability. Many are discredited; having failed at one level, they are often promoted to a higher level, or shuffled off to another office. In their world, attempting to accomplish the mission is as good as actually accomplishing it. They blame low morale on budget cuts and, when they do consider the issue of low morale, they treat it as unsolvable, despite proof presented by the Partnership for Public Service that federal agencies can improve morale. Not just a touchy-feely issue, morale is as important as any other asset: low morale threatens the accomplishment of the mission. Yet the agency’s managers place a low priority on morale improvement, treating it as something to do only when absolutely necessary. Employees hope that the new, more-active Broadcasting Board of Governors will force the agency’s managers to improve or leave.
(It may be the case that the federal system cannot properly manage a news organization, which must be nimble, open to new ideas and new leaders and willing and able to remove people who have been in the organization for too long; it has to be asked if a news organization in 2014 can be run by people who either have no journalism experience or, if they did, last wrote a news story on a manual typewriter, used White-out to make corrections, contacted their news sources on a rotary-dial phone, used documents that were faxed to them, and last audio-edited on a reel-to-reel tape player using a grease pencil, a razor blade and splicing tape. Can someone who has been in an organization since Gerald Ford was president know how to run a media organization today? Is any successful media organization today run by people who have never worked anywhere else?)
At a meeting of the Board some months ago, its new chairman Jeff Shell noted the importance of good morale in an organization.
BBG CHAIRMAN JEFF SHELL: “In the private sector, I’m in the media business too, and when you’re in communications and media business, what you really have is your people, and it’s true very much so at this organization as well. And I think the Board and the organization is very much committed to making it not just a better place to work but the best place to work and have employees who are excited to come here every day and believe in the mission and in what they are trying to do and what we’re trying to get to.”
“So going from low, down in the ratings to low but a little bit better in the ratings is nothing to crow about and we’re not happy at all about where we are. And we have a lot of work to do…but at least we’re moving a little bit in the right direction, so my commendations to everybody who’s worked hard to start to turn this battleship around a little bit. There is nothing more important to this organization than making it a good place to work for our dedicated people.”
Indeed, as Mr. Shell noted, the agency has a lot of work to do. It is crippled by a festering, poisonous relationship with its largest union, and employee morale that is among the lowest of any federal agency. The once-great VOA is struggling to survive and meet the growing demands of its audiences with a shrunken and demoralized staff and leaders who are calcified, defensive, incompetent and bereft of energy and new ideas.
Unlike many federal agencies, VOA gives almost no leadership training to its new managers — who are almost always hired based on technical skills and not on any demonstrated record of leadership, a long-standing, oft-noted problem in the federal government — and has no plan in place to identify, nurture and train future leaders, despite knowing for some time how important leadership training programs are and despite scoring embarrassingly low in the OPM survey in the category of employees’ trust in their leaders. In a meeting held to discuss the agency’s abysmally low morale ranking, a senior manager acknowledged that some now in the management ranks did not have a record of leadership before being selected for their current positions and are there just so they can make more money rather than out of a desire to manage people. Later, he admitted “we promote them and just hope for the best.” Refreshing candor, but disconcerting. A human resources official has said the interview panels that select new leaders are provided with a list of questions the answers to which indicate whether a candidate is capable of leadership even if they have not previously led others. Some questions they must be. I ask the Dr. Phil question: how’s that working out for you?
More than a year ago, VOA leaders loudly embarked on a program of change it calls “Workplace Engagement.” But the effort stumbled out of the gate when employees learned that the people designated to lead the dozen or so committees established under the program were the senior managers of the organization — the very managers who had either created the dysfunctional system that had led to the agency being run into a ditch or were its beneficiaries. The current VOA Director — David Ensor — is a former well-regarded NPR, ABC and CNN correspondent. He was appointed to lead the complex and challenging agency nearly three years ago despite having little management experience, and certainly no experience turning around an organization in crisis. He announced the change effort to great fanfare (and under great pressure after finding himself unable to make headway in changing the agency’s divisive culture, legacy of mismanagement and history of retaliation against its critics). He was warned that putting the tainted managers in charge of the change effort was a mistake. Predictably, the warnings were prescient; the change effort has stalled, the committees have not met for months, and little of note has come from the effort — save for a few social events, including VOA Bingo, kickball games, wine tastings, ice cream socials and other events held under the “FunFest” banner. At a meeting with some employees a few months ago, Mr. Ensor weakly claimed the change effort was “making progress,” but gave no examples of any tangible results — perhaps because there were none to cite. Although widely liked, Mr. Ensor is seen as weak, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the agency’s problems, and a captive of the bureaucrats who were in power decades before he arrived and who plan to be in power for many years after he is gone.
A newly-invigorated and clearly disgusted Broadcasting Board of Governors — which sets policy for US government international broadcasting — finally put out to pasture a longtime executive of the International Broadcasting Bureau, the ineffective and bloated organization that provides guidance and administrative support to VOA. The Board appointed and empowered three top managers (one of whom has since left the agency) of the IBB to prepare VOA and other US government international broadcasting entities for the arrival of a new CEO — the first time the country’s international broadcasters will all be led by one person rather than a presidentially-appointed, part-time nine-member Board of Governors. Observers note approvingly that the three each have just a few years of experience in the agency and are not among the tainted managers with decades-long tenures who are seen as resistant to or incapable of change.
The new triumvirate publicly promised to make sweeping changes, saying it is no longer “business as usual,” but little has happened so far, except the firing of a long-time newsroom manager who was universally disliked but had survived in a management role for more than a decade. The three have made big promises, but employees — who have heard those kinds of promises before — are skeptical. But at least now VOA’s long-suffering, dedicated employees know that the media are watching (including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The New York Times and a well-sourced and well-read outside blog — BBGWatch.com — that is highly critical of the agency’s managers), the unions are watching, the president and his appointees are watching, Congress is watching and the American people are watching. And so are the millions of freedom-loving people around the world (as well as those who would oppress them) who count on VOA for reliable, credible news about America and the world. Surely after so many promises that things will change, this time they really will.
If this new effort fails, Congress and the White House owe it to the American taxpayer to consider at least two drastic measures: de-federalize VOA and turn it over to a private entity, or de-fund it — throw in the towel, conclude that there is no way to right the ship and leave it to commercial broadcasters, cable channels and Hollywood to export American values to the world. Neither of these options is preferable, and, for most of my colleagues, certainly not palatable. But there is nothing that says VOA must continue, and it is not clear that VOA is the only way to project the soft power of core American values. And it is surely clear that VOA is unable to accomplish its mission with the managers it now has. At some point Congress and the president have to face reality: if VOA, after decades of mismanagement and years of being at or near the bottom of federal agency morale rankings, cannot get its act together now after being told that its very future is at risk, it may be time for it to end its broadcast day.
The writer is a broadcaster at The Voice of America.