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.

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Leadership Change Needed at Voice of America

A column from an anonymous VOA journalist

I have written recently in this space about the similarities between Voice of America (VOA) and three other troubled federal agencies: the Department of Homeland Security, the VA and the Secret Service. VOA shares many failings with those much-larger federal government entities, including poor leaders unencumbered by initial or ongoing leadership development training, a lack of accountability for the failures of senior managers, poor financial controls and a long, documented record of retaliation against critics — retaliation that almost always results in criticism of the agency, payment of the employees’ legal fees and reinstatement of the unfairly-treated employees.

A recent report from an independent panel investigating the Secret Service confirms that the protective agency suffers from many of the same problems as VOA, particularly in the need for leadership reform. The panel’s report could serve as a blueprint for changes at VOA.

As noted, the panel “issued recommendations calling for improved training, greater funding to increase staff and refresh technology, and stronger leadership to promote a range of new goals.”

The website reported that “more than half of the recommendations in the review pertain to leadership.” It called for a new director from outside the agency (done, if CEO-designate Andy Lack ever reports for work) to reinvigorate the agency and question “long-held assumptions.”

Firing Failed Executives – A Difficult But Necessary Undertaking

Speaking about another troubled agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), put it recently:

“new plans, initiatives and organizational structures are all well and good, but they will not produce their intended results until VA rids itself of the employees who have shaken veterans’ trust in the system. So far VA hasn’t done that – as evidenced by the fact that the majority of those who caused the VA scandal are still on the department payroll. I’m disappointed that instead of fully embracing the new firing authorities Congress and President Obama gave VA as part of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, the department has shied away from them and even added more bureaucratic red tape such as additional appeals and interminable stints on paid leave. No one doubts that reforming VA is a tough job. But getting rid of failed executives should be the easiest part – not the most difficult.”

As we have seen with the VA, it is not illegal to name senior leaders who have been fired, so the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should stop trying to hide behind their incorrect belief that it is. As a senior member of Congress noted after the VA finally fired the head of VA Pittsburgh Health System, “its obvious VA had no interest in holding her accountable initially and was only driven to this point after intense congressional and media scrutiny.” The congressman added that though “the removal is a positive step, VA still has a lot to learn about honesty, integrity and accountability, and this action doesn’t change that fact.”

As is readily apparent, the VOA leadership culture has become inbred, insular, toxic and demoralized. Many of the leaders have been taking care of one another for 20 or 30 years, helping one another move up the ranks and covering up for one another when they screw up. They’ve stopped trying new things, and now spend most of their time trying to hang on to their six-figure jobs.

It is much the same at the Secret Service, which was criticized by the panel for its “highly insular culture.” The Washington Post reported the panel called for “new leadership from the outside to shake up the agency.” It said the Secret Service (and, I posit, VOA) is in need of new, “dynamic leadership that can move the Service forward into a new era and drive change in the organization.”

The Voice of America newsroom has become a poisonous pit, with some reporters barely able to contain their rage at some editors they see as obstructionist, incompetent and unwilling to give them even minimal support. It is a tense and unhappy place, with many reporters and editors barely on speaking terms. I don’t know one VOA employee who believes the current agency leadership is “dynamic” or capable of moving the agency forward into a new era, or able to drive change in the organization. Andy Lack, as I have noted previously in this space, has a big job ahead of him.

Ice Cream Socials Won’t Do It

The Secret Service panel recommended that “the new leadership…create more channels for employee feedback and input (and) increase accountability.” The current VOA leadership promised more town halls, more FaceTime meetings and more drop-by visits to branches. But after a spurt of those kinds of activities, they came to a halt, much like the vaunted Workplace Engagement effort. Instead, we got ice cream socials, ugly Christmas sweater contests and rummage sales, showing once again that VOA leadership consistently focuses on the things that need the least attention, and neglects the things that need the most.

The Washington Post reported the panel recommended “sweeping changes” to the Secret Service and said it was “starved for leadership.” Every employee I know at VOA believes that applies here as well. Many of the senior leaders are trying to keep their jobs and salvage their reputations by proposing yet another reorganization. Congress and the Board should see through that move, especially because it has already been bungled by the director.

VOA is lousy with failed executives who have time and again fumbled their response to the changing media landscape. If VOA is ever to be righted, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Andy Lack must move to publicly fire incompetent managers. The VA is doing it. The VOA should, as well. They should not be allowed to waltz out of the building after a lovely retirement party and banal parting comments from senior officials.

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