BBG Watch Commentary

Courage And RiskBBG Watch has received an electronic letter from a Voice of America journalist / broadcaster who wants to be identified as “a strong internal VOA critic.”

To us, the letter shows how truly desperate VOA employees are for change and reform and how much they want effective leadership. It also shows that employees still fear retaliation for speaking out on employee morale issues.

While we appreciate the praise for BBG Watch, we want to caution our readers that affecting change at U.S. international media outreach entities has been a difficult and prolonged process. It will not be fast and easy.

Some of the proposals outlined in the letter, while they may make perfect sense, may be difficult if not impossible to achieve.

In our view, in this type of environment, change depends on the quality of top leaders. That is where change needs to happen first. New leaders, if chosen right, must then initiate further reforms and create a working environment in which employees feel safe, cared for and valued, which they certainly do not now.

But we agree with the overall message of the author. Do not get discouraged, do not give up, continue the fight for justice and good management, have courage. But courage also has an element of risk, especially in the hostile work environment promoted by the current management culture.

We do believe, however, that it will change, even if change will be slow. That is our hope. BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and the current board have made encouraging statements and taken some encouraging initial steps. There is still enormous fear, however, that managers who have caused the agency’s tragic decline who are still here will remain and especially that those who have lost their status might still return.

The author has asked us to post the letter in full, which we are happy to do.

We encourage you to share this post among Voice of America employees.

Thank you.

Also see: A Dose of Reality in Response to Desperation, by The Federalist

Letter to BBG Watch from ‘a strong internal VOA critic’

BBG Watch is doing a great job, and is more influential inside the Cohen building than you can imagine. It is also clear that the Governors are reading it, as are leaders at the White House, the State Department and Capitol Hill staffers and members, as well as thought-leaders at think tanks.

There is a sense of anticipation in the building, a sense that the recently-crowned triumvirate of Andre Mendes, Robert Boles and Suzie Carroll really will make changes, really is empowered, really will cause heads to roll.

This seems like a last-ditch effort by the Board to really effect change.

I understand the concern expressed in a number of BBGWatch columns at VOA Chief of Staff Barbara Brady’s assertion in a recent Washington Post Federal Diary column that we are on a 3-5 year plan to make changes. After so many years of broken promises and unforgivable management and leadership blunders, 3-5 years seems like a lot. In fact, I believe she was too optimistic — we are probably on a 10-15 year plan. It is going to take years to remove the deadwood. Consider this: the current leaders either created the current dysfunctional system or are its products. They have swum so long in the murky waters that they don’t remember when they were clear. Abnormality has become the norm.

In their defense, many of them are simply unaware of the real danger the Agency is in, or, if they are aware, simply do not believe anything can be done. Many of them are so accustomed to surviving these threats that they no longer take them seriously. They are permanently tainted.

A case can be made that all current supervisors and leaders be immediately removed from their positions. If you read about leadership change much at all you quickly see patters emerge. One of them is that it is exceedingly rare that current management/leadership is able to make the changes necessary to move an organization in a new direction. They are just too invested in the old way of doing things.

So, that is why most organizations in need of change replace most or all of their current leaders.

Doing so at VOA would certainly jump-start the process, but is it realistic? It isn’t. So I make this (perhaps equally unrealistic) proposal for a Leadership Reset:


“Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”


“If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”


“So many leaders have served the Agency so badly for so many decades that it’s hard to keep track of their maledictions.”


Immediately re-appoint all existing supervisors, managers and leaders to an “acting” capacity and remove from them all hire/fire authority as well as all authority to make substantive programming and personnel decisions.

Require that they reapply for their jobs.

After an assessment, retain them or transfer them.  If they are retained following the preliminary assessment, require that they enter into a one-year probationary period. During this probationary period, they must demonstrate their capacity for competent management and inspirational leadership. They must complete a self-assessment, attend mandatory management and leadership classes, meet with their supervisors, and be subject to quarterly reviews with their supervisors and those they supervise. (The agency has long proposed a 360 evaluation process; it should move promptly to put this process in place even if it does not embrace the Leadership Reset.)

They are subject to removal from their positions at any time during the probation period.

If they are removed from their position during the probationary period, they will be ineligible for assignment to a supervisory position for five years from date of removal.

There will be a job posting for the position within 30 days of removal of the incumbent.

This reset is necessary because there is a perception throughout the Agency that nothing is done about proven poor performance; indeed, many VOA employees believe that those guilty of incompetence, bad behavior, abuse of power, or even malfeasance and harassment are not only not punished but are often transferred and then given another chance at leadership or are even promoted.

To ensure the Agency is not in the same place five or ten years from now, VOA must create opportunities for aspiring supervisors to show their leadership and management skills, and promotion to leadership positions should only take place when leadership skills have been clearly demonstrated. Often, employees are promoted based only on their demonstrated technical excellence, rather than on any demonstrated leadership skills. Invariably, they fail, but they are not going to admit that and deal with the embarrassment and lower pay by volunteering to return to a non-leadership position. The Agency simply must do better to groom new leaders. Other small federal agencies do it; there is no reason VOA cannot.

As one commenter noted on “moral(e) and low self-esteem are not the problems at VOA and BBG. Bad management is the problem. Bake sales and yoga classes do not fix bad management. In fact they are the types of events bad management puts in place to hide behind. Management is so disrespectful of its employees that they honestly believe cookies will buy their loyalty, that the face-to-face meeting with employees is any different than the daily face-to-face realities experienced each and every day…Bad managers do not change overnight because you wish it so. You must educate them, you must monitor them and if necessary you must remove them. If the same managers for the past 15 years have made the same mistakes why would they change now? They will not. It is time for a clean sweep. From the top down. Mostly from the top. Leadership is inspiring when leadership is inspired. Employees are entitled to a safe, productive and meaningful workplace and if my tax dollars pay for it, I want it to be so.”

Another commenter said: “I spent 27 years as a VOA News Division correspondent. The core problem is not only bad management (although that certainly is a major factor); it is conflicted management. It is a government agency trying to be a news organization, and, at the same time, a news organization that is a government agency. VOA must thus often work under federal rules that have no applicability in a news organization. The journalistic ethos is in near constant conflict with the governmental bureaucratic imperative. Unfortunately, management – even those of it with a news background – tends to gravitate toward the bureaucratic side of things at the expense of things journalistic. I term these people ‘journocrats.’ There is also an atmosphere of intimidation, which doesn’t help morale, either. Frankly, the money spent on game nights for employees would be better spent on anger management classes for the VOA brass.”

And another said:

“There is much to do at VOA. It is an agency stuck in a time warp. Mr. Davidson, do your readers a favor and ask the managers you are quoting specifically what they are doing? Are they part of the problem and are they really working toward a solution?

“If anyone quoted in your article had said, ‘Yes, we have major problems in management in every department and every service, but we are going to solve those problems, I AM GOING TO SOLVE THOSE PROBLEMS, so we can get back to the business of informing our audience and serving the American People’ now that would have been a news story. Certainly not the puff waste of time you printed in today’s paper.

“Mr. Davidson, get into the building, talk to Andre (Mendes), talk to those few who have not been tainted by the ‘can’t do’ attitude of unenlightened managers, and talk to those who care about what we do. Andre, your quotes were awful in this article, really, go for it, don’t punt, it’s very unbecoming.

“America has a great story to tell – even with all its warts it is still better than most places. Report on VOA’s potential, on the missed opportunities, and honestly report on the problems because VOA’s employees deserve more than another puff piece, throw away on how ‘great we’re doing.’ It is not true. It is not close to true. It is a mess. A total mess. But it must be fixed. “There is only one VOA and its potential is unlimited and unparalleled. To have it being squandered is as close to a crime as it gets.

“If the WP can’t tell the truth, we are doomed. Mr. Davidson, I think as they say, the ball is in your court.”


Those are some strong comments, and few workers in the Agency would disagree with them.


Many VOA leaders attribute the problem to issues beyond their control: federal hiring and firing policies; budget cuts; pay freezes; hiring freezes; lack of promotion opportunities. These clearly contribute. But here is the question that agency leaders seem unwilling or unable to answer: why is it that other federal agencies that face the very same issues have better managers and leaders and higher morale? There is clearly something specific to VOA, something that has developed over the years, something in the culture that has grown like a cancer and is threatening the agency’s very existence.

The Partnership for Public Service recently produced case studies showing how other federal agencies have improved. Have VOA’s senior leaders read those brief case studies and acted on them? Have they contacted other federal agencies that have improved and asked for their help?

It is time to stop being reactive and stop making begrudging, public relations-motivated moves and calling them reforms. That is not going to cut it anymore. Too many people are demanding action. Too many people are watching this time. Too many people are empowered. It is no longer business as usual. The Agency’s very life is threatened. Congress is showing with smaller budgets how little it thinks of VOA. This is a time of maximum danger.