BBG Watch Guest Commentary
BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from a current Voice of America (VOA) journalist who prefers to remain anonymous. He writes: “VOA’s current leaders are weak, incompetent and lack vision. They must be replaced, or they will be the agency’s last leaders.”
Views expressed here are only those of the authors and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.
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Federal Dysfunction: Voice of America and Department of Homeland Security
VOA and VA; VOA and the Secret Service; now VOA and DHS
By A Voice of America Journalist
I have previously noted in this space the similarities between the Voice of America (VOA) and the U.S. Secret Service and VOA and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). It turns out VOA is also quite similar to another mismanaged and demoralized federal agency — the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The Federal Times newspaper and FederalTimes.com have been reporting on the travails of the bloated and ineffective DHS for years. From the newspaper’s reports, it is clear that DHS is a failed agency, much like VOA. It is also clear that at least some members of Congress realize the agency needs to be fixed, just as it is clear Congress realizes VOA needs to be fixed. But members of Congress have many demands on their time and energy, and trying to fix a federal agency is not likely to be something they want to spend a lot of time on. It certainly doesn’t help them in their ultimate goal — to stay in office. “Vote for me! I spent two years working on fixing DHS!” is hardly a campaign slogan that will generate excitement and votes.
The Federal Times reported DHS is “reel(ing) from scandals, falling morale and recruiting issues.” VOA, as well, is reeling from poor management, financial scandals and falling (actually plummeting) morale.
Young media professionals — who are internet- and media-savvy and can quickly find sites like BBG Watch — are not going to want to join VOA once they read about its sorry state, so it, like DHS, will continue to have recruiting and retention problems. As I have noted previously in this space, VOA is overwhelmingly over 40, white and male. Yet its target audience is overwhelmingly under 25, non-white and both male and female. The agency desperately needs to recruit and retain a much younger cohort that can interact with its target audiences. But prospective young broadcasters will run screaming from VOA recruiters once they learn about the pervasive and seemingly intractable morale and management problems at the agency.
The Federal Times reported Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) recommends that DHS be “dismantled…it’s a monument to bureaucracy.” It says Mr. Mica believes DHS “cannot properly manage its workforce and budget.” He could just as well be speaking about VOA.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) notes the “numerous reports from Congressional watchdogs like GAO (that show) mismanagement at DHS continues.” VOA and the BBG have also been the subject of “numerous reports” from watchdogs detailing mismanagement.
The newspaper reports that the Partnership for Public Service, which helps federal agencies become more effective (although it failed miserably with VOA, as I have noted previously in this space) has some advice for improving DHS. It says “Congress and the administration should focus on how to engage employees while building an agency leadership structure to provide accountability, improve morale and help fix the agency’s ongoing management issues.”
Sounds like good advice for VOA, but the diagnosis is much easier than the treatment. VOA’s senior leaders have shown they cannot engage employees. And how can they “build an agency leadership structure” with no leadership development program in place? Weak leaders cannot “provide accountability, improve morale and help fix the agency’s ongoing management issues.” Weak leaders have to devote too much time to hanging on to their jobs; they simply don’t have the time or talent to help their agency improve.
There has developed within VOA a cultural refusal to fire incompetent leaders. Concomitantly, the agency has not developed a culture of accountability, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which has ultimate responsibility for the management of the agency, should be given more powers to fire the agency’s many incompetent leaders forthwith. Too many failed leaders get shuffled from post to post, or are appointed as “Senior Advisor” and put out to pasture on Mahogany Row. Enough!
As I and others have written before, VOA faces an existential crisis. Members of Congress are actually asking out loud if the agency should even exist, either in its current form or at all. Let’s be clear: there is nothing in the US Constitution that says VOA must exist. Congress created the agency, and Congress can defund it. See: First ever bill to defund Voice of America for violations of VOA Charter and mismanagement, BBG Watch, March 24, 2014.
Just because something once thrived does not mean it will survive.
To wit: Suzuki; Kodak; Blackberry; Woolworth; WT Grant; Blockbuster; Borders, American Motors, Pan Am, Schwinn, Commodore Computers, Wang Laboratories, Eastern Airlines and Circuit City. These companies got arrogant, acted entitled, failed to adapt, failed to train and develop their people and refused to listen to those who warned they were heading down the wrong path. Their leaders collected fat paychecks while destroying their companies.
VOA’s current leaders are weak, incompetent and lack vision. They must be replaced, or they will be the agency’s last leaders.
But the news is not all bad: VOA’s long-suffering employees may be getting help in getting the agency back on track. FederalNewsRadio.com reports that federal agency leaders are going to be rated on the level of their employees’ engagement and whether the leaders have created an “inclusive work environment.” (On those two issues, VOA’s leaders would fail miserably, of course.)
The Office of Management and Budget has written a memo (still in draft form, but available here: that would, according FederalNewsRadio.com, “direct agencies to seek their labor unions’ help in engaging employees. In addition, it says agencies should involve managers and supervisors at all levels in efforts to boost engagement.”
The website reports a new working group on employee engagement has been created and will work “under the auspices of the Federal Labor Management Council and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.” The group has already visited agencies that score high on the annual federal employee viewpoint survey (including NASA and the NRC), “as well as those which have made dramatic improvement. It hopes to release…tools next month, (including) a data analysis guide to help managers make sense of their agencies’ viewpoint survey results, a template that would let agencies share success stories and a packet of ‘conversation starters’ for focus groups.”
As much as we appreciate the attention on employee engagement, we can only hope that this doesn’t produce another round of studies and committees and projects. We know what is wrong with VOA. Almost every employee in the agency can rattle off the laundry-list of the agency’s problems. We need to implement the solutions that have already been put forth, beginning with change at the top down through associate director, division and branch level. As FederalNewsRadio.com reports, the working group has already determined that high-performing agencies articulate their messages, invite discussion and invest in their employees’ training and leadership development. VOA does none of that. If an agency engages in none of the activities of high-performing federal agencies, how can it ever hope to improve?
Justin Johnson, the executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, says the secret to improving morale “is finding something, committing to it, and consistently applying it so folks don’t feel like they are being whipsawed by flavor-of-the-month initiatives.” Can anyone say with a straight face that VOA’s Workplace Engagement effort is not a flavor-of-the-month initiative? What happened to regular town halls and FaceTime meetings? What happened to the recommendations of the Workplace Engagement committees? The Keystone Kops-like actions of VOA’s senior leaders would be comical were they not so sad. The agency’s leaders engage in almost every activity that research has shown leads to low morale among federal employees and almost none of the activities that research has shown would improve it.
Furthermore, the agency has to be more open to criticism from its workers, most of whom fear retaliation from their supervisors and so do not openly criticize the agency. As new VA Secretary Bob McDonald told the CBS News program 60 Minutes, the VA is “a broken system…you have to get adverse information from the bottom to the top as quick as possible. You have to give incentives and protection to whistle-blowers. You have to ensure that people get rewarded for bringing adverse information forward.” The former acting VA secretary Sloane Gibson told the program the VA has been suffering from “leadership failure and mismanagement” (if only incoming BBG CEO Andy Lack would make such a clear statement). Gibson said “harsh reality is better than false hope…Employees wanted to do the right thing – they worked really hard but the system and the organization was really not supporting them.”
Luckily for them, McDonald and Gibson have powers under a new law that makes it easier for them to fire poor leaders. That is one of the few ways to get a failed agency back on track. VOA is clearly a failed agency. Why can’t the Broadcasting Board of Governors have the same power?