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.

Views expressed here are only those of the author and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.

We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.

No Lack of Challenges Ahead for New BBG CEO

By A Voice of America Journalist


My man!

My main man!

My brutha!

Welcome to the jungle, homes!

You stepped into something real here.

So, Andy – can I call you Andy? – you’re here. You’re finally here.
For a while, we thought you had had a change of heart – and really, we would not have blamed you.

We’re told you’ve been hanging around, going to meetings, doing some evaluating and kicking the tires. But now that you’re here and you have a chance to really look under the hood, my guess is you’re going to be shocked by what you find.

Why are you here?

A lot of folks are asking that question. Why would someone with your experience and long track record of success in different organizations at different jobs come to a place with VOA’s reputation? Surely you know this is a wounded, hurting place, a place that has been limping along for years, mired at the bottom of the annual federal government morale survey. The agency’s long-suffering employees succeed in spite of their leaders, not because of them. But surely you know that by now.

Since you have finally arrived, take questions.

Hint: Create a system where questions can be asked anonymously and you will get some very interesting, and honest, queries. You may learn a lot from these questions.

Also, tell us where you plan to take the agency.

But do us a favor: don’t tell us how good we are and what a great agency we work at and what a storied history we have. We know all that. Tell us what you are going to do, tell us how you are going to make things better. You need to galvanize the troops. You can electrify them. But you don’t have much time, or many opportunities to do so.

On that note, I hope you will take note of what the acting director of the US Secret Service recently did: he fired four of the agency’s top leaders. You should do the same.

Nota Bene: It should be noted that, in the past few months, in preparation for your arrival there has been an increase in transfers and retirements at the senior level, because of the mostly unseen and unacknowledged work of the IBB Interim Management Team [installed last year by the current BBG Board under Chairman Shell]. You should keep up the momentum. We have seen senior leaders leaving the building with boxes of their personal effects in their arms. That is a pleasing sight and will help lead to improved agency performance and morale.

The agency’s leaders have made empty promises about accountability for years, yet senior leaders themselves are never held accountable. So: Hold. Them. Accountable.

If the VA scandal has shown anything it is that senior government agency leaders can be fired, and publicly. Previous VOA directors and the Board have had the power to fire incompetent senior leaders and have not used it. Now you have that power, and Congress will demand that you use it.

Nota Bene: Removing failed top SES and GM federal agency executives could be made easier by a special act from Congress, but it is still possible and in fact required even under the current Civil Service personnel system protections.

If you continue to surround yourself with the leaders who have crippled VOA, you will lose all credibility with the agency’s employees and will become just one more director in a long line who have been co-opted by the bureaucracy.

Some other actions you should take early in your tenure:

Eat lunch with different employee groups, and employees, every day. Spend as little time as possible with the agency’s failed leaders; they don’t need your attention except that which is necessary to remove them. Nonetheless, watch them closely. They are not your friends and they will not support you. Their only goal is their self-preservation.

Improve relations with Congress. Show the people’s representatives that the agency can be managed and there is no need to defund or defederalize it.

Your most-important task may be to begin the dismantling of a management culture and structure that punishes journalists and rewards those who do not take risk.

You must wrung out the toxicity in the culture. One way to do that is to remove those responsible for instituting the toxicity in the first place. Find out who was responsible for the illegal RIFs of journalists at OCB a few years ago and fire them forthwith if some of them are still around. Find out who refused to obey the orders of federal arbitrators who ruled that the OCB employees had been illegally RIFed and fire those managers forthwith.

Set up employee councils and give them power.

Create a leadership development program.

Create a reward program for whistleblowers.

Begin 360 evaluations of leaders; we’ve been promised that for years and it has not been implemented.

Identify careerists – you’ve done this in previous jobs, so you know how to do this. They are the ones who have been shuffled from job to job, never rocking the boat, never making an impression, never leaving a mark, never putting forth ideas, always receptive to the ideas of their superiors, no matter how poorly thought-out they may be. They have many awards on their walls and almost nothing of substance behind them. They contribute nothing, but are responsible for poor morale. Ask around about them and no one will be able to tell you what they have accomplished.

Changing leaders is one, but only one critical element of turning around the agency. Make changes swiftly from top to bottom and you will have the rank and file on your side immediately; additionally, you will send a message that those who remain in their positions must perform or they will meet the same fate. My guess is you will see a rash of resignations and retirements, which is exactly what the agency needs. Don’t be swayed by those who caution you to go slow for fear that you will end up with a vacuum. Leaving a vacuum will be an improvement.

Reward results, not effort. The agency is plagued by a culture that gives rewards for effort and withholds punishment for failure (except, of course, failure on the part of the rank and file; punishment for those at that level has been plentiful and swift).

When former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee died, Bob Woodward said “he encouraged people, stimulated people, but didn’t run over them. He was an irrepressible leader, chief motivator, sometime cheerleader and always our protector. He had enthusiasm and charm.”

That is certainly something to strive for. Can you say that about any of the people who now work for you? If you can, keep them. If you can’t, ask them to leave. Employee morale, performance and commitment to the mission will improve if you do.