BBG Watch Guest Commentary

BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from a current Voice of America journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.

Views expressed here are only those of the authors 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.


VOA and USSS: Very Different, Very Similar

By A Voice of America Journalist

The Voice of America (VOA) and the Secret Service could hardly be more different, although both are tasked with vital protection missions — the president and others in the case of the Secret Service, and freedom and democracy in the case of VOA.

But in terms of management problems, the two agencies are virtual twins.

Members of Congress, employees, unions and opinion leaders have been calling for fundamental change at both agencies for years, hoping to avert the crises that have now befallen both agencies. But their entreaties fell on deaf ears. And now, as many had warned would happen, both agencies are in major meltdown mode.

As the Reuters news agency noted, “the Secret Service is struggling to emerge from a succession of scandals that have tarnished its reputation, forced the abrupt resignation of its director and raised questions about its ability to fulfill its most critical duty: protecting President Barack Obama and his family. Sources inside and outside the administration say many problems such as low morale, a leadership crisis and a culture of covering up mistakes.”

Sound like an agency you know?

The director of the Secret Service resigned recently because she realized she no longer enjoyed the confidence of Congress and the administration. She put on a dreadful performance at a House hearing. But, as Politico noted, her “failings were not, of course, just optics. The job of directing the Secret Service and instituting deep culture reforms does not bring to mind an agency veteran whose background is heavy with administrative or human resource roles. Those experiences tend to make the person reflexively defensive and unresponsive to legitimate outside criticism of the organization and its members and punitive with insiders who dare to buck the system even in pursuit of needed reforms. Those who spend years or decades implementing, rather than creating, a vision for the future, invariably tend to risk-aversion. They are rarely bold agents of change.”

BBG Board Chairman Jeff Shell understands this, which is why he is bringing in Andy Lack. He knows there is no one at the senior level of VOA capable of changing the agency’s toxic culture. And, clearly, no one at the senior level of the agency has a vision for the future, at least not one any of the members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors would embrace.

Those who have called for change over the years, and are doing so now, are likely to be wise enough to know that, while new leadership is necessary and useful, booting top leaders of a dysfunctional organization is not in itself enough to turn an agency around — although it is often the first step toward a new and improved organization. The problems plaguing both agencies pre-date the current senior leadership and will survive them if systemic changes are not put in place. The leaders of both agencies are products of a dysfunctional system and share some of its blame for its perpetuation and for the toxic culture that hobbles both agencies. They would want credit if the agency they help lead were successful, so they must accept blame when their agency is not. Goes both ways, as they say.

Congress has been embarrassed by both agencies and wants leaders installed who will stop the bleeding and public scandals and who are transformational and will set the agency on the path to success. The problems are so great in both agencies that a new and inspirational and visionary leader is needed, someone who will move out the current senior leaders and make deep, broad, immediate and dramatic changes while creating a future that ensures the agencies remain viable.

Remember, neither the Secret Service nor VOA is mandated by the Constitution. They don’t have to exist. They can be defunded and their activities rolled into another, existing agency. If an organization is so hobbled, it may make sense to eliminate it and move its operations somewhere else, or just stop doing what it has been doing. The broadcasters of VOA should not assume the agency will always exist. Congress has the option of shutting it down if it does not believe it can be rehabilitated and brought up to speed and up to date.

Washington, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told CNN, as quoted by The Hill newspaper, that the Secret Service is “old-fashioned.” The newspaper says she believes the agency is “ill-equipped to deal with modern problems.” She, like others, has called for an independent, comprehensive review of the agency perhaps by an independent panel of experts.

“We need a total overhaul of that agency,” she said.

Were she to turn her attention to VOA, she might say the same about it.

As talented as CEO-designate Andy Lack is, he can’t do it alone. VOA has deep-rooted systemic problems. Most of them, but not all, are the result of incompetent management and poor leadership who are themselves products of a decades-old dysfunctional leadership cadre. They have to go, and fast, before they can do any more damage. Andy Lack likely knows the problems, and the problem leaders, and will move to address those problems swiftly.

Even VOA Director David Ensor recently admitted, during a town hall meeting, that changes were likely in the senior leadership ranks under Andy Lack. But, although a new broom may sweep clean, it doesn’t create a new structure — it just sweeps away the old one. Mr. Lack’s challenge won’t be tearing down the crumbling barn; it will be building a new one. After all, anyone can tear down a building; it takes a carpenter to build one — and, in the case of VOA, an architect and interior decorator. (Might want to bring in a psychiatrist and chiropractor while we’re at it.)

As Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said of the Secret Service: “Unfortunately the problems that have plagued the (agency) are longstanding and go beyond one individual.” I’d argue that that applies to VOA as well. Push out the existing leadership team? Certainly. But what do you do next? Do you have a viable agency? Who do you replace the incompetents with? Other incompetents? A cultural change is necessary. And that ain’t easy. And it won’t happen overnight. But it must begin, and quickly.

Andy Lack must move to decisively change the culture that has allowed the agency to sink to its current level of effectiveness. He and the new leaders he names must, among other actions, improve transparency and communication and work to improve the perception of the agency among its many audiences, domestic and international.

Too often and for far too long, the agency’s employees and leaders have found themselves in opposition to one another, mistrustful of each other and not working together toward shared goals. Mr. Lack must get the employees and their unions working in partnership with the agency’s leaders. Without this cooperation, everyone is rowing in their own direction, and the ship gets nowhere.

VOA should also move quickly to repair and reset its relationship with its funders (Congress), the executive branch (including the president, the State Department, and the Pentagon, among others), the American people, and with its worldwide audience. It should acknowledge and rectify past mistakes, and rededicate itself to work together with all of its audiences to work together toward a more-effective future. It should make significant changes in people, policies, management as well as its culture, standards and expectations.

Andy Lack is no slouch. He can handle pressure. And he’ll have a lot of it to handle the minute he walks in the door. A lot of people are dreading that day, but the agency’s long-suffering employees are hoping his arrival marks the start of major change at VOA.

The senior leaders could make Mr. Lack’s job much easier by leaving of their own accord, much like Mitt Romney suggested some illegal aliens may “self-deport” given the right incentives. Every one of you (and I am talking to you; the senior leaders of the agency are among the many readers of BBG Watch; they certainly talk about the site a lot during high-level staff and editorial meetings) claims to love VOA. Every one of you says you are committed to the mission. Yet if you are a senior leader you must accept some responsibility for the state in which the agency now finds itself. It is now time for you to repay the agency for all that it has done for you. Stop telling us and your bosses how much you love the agency and start showing it. By retiring. Admit that what the agency needs now is not something you possess.

Whatever skills are needed to save the agency are not skills you have, nor is it likely you will ever have them at this stage of your career. Time has passed you by. You are dead weight. And we are drowning. This agency that has given you personal and professional satisfaction and success and financial security now needs you to do the right thing: leave. You’ve had your shot. And it is now time for you to go. Begin a new chapter in your life. Enjoy your retirement and let us go about rescuing this agency and pulling it back from the cliff you have driven it to the edge of. We need new, talented, young leaders with fresh, 21st-century ideas and energetic people to implement them. We need to find and woo talent, and retain them. You’ve shown you’re terrible at that, among other things. We don’t need placeholders, clerks, punitive-minded, overly-cautious, feckless managers. We need leaders. And that ain’t you.

Just think, if you leave, you won’t have to deal with potshotting a-holes like me. You won’t have to go to sleep dreading what another BBG Watch commentary is going to say tomorrow about management, news reporting, web, and social media problems at VOA. You won’t have to endure the stares of your colleagues during editorial meetings in the morning. That’s no life.

If you act now, you won’t have to deal with the snickers behind your back after you are removed from your current position and given a nice, cushy, meaningless sinecure in the Hall of No Jobs, never to be seen or heard from again. Yes, I know, you’ve survived VOA directors before. You’ve outlasted them all. But this Andy Lack character is a different animal, and this is a different time. He’s been given a mandate for change. And change begins from the top down. My advice? Jump before you’re pushed.

The former Secret Service director did the right thing when she quickly resigned after a disastrous hearing and her failure to address long-standing problems, exacerbated by the intrusion into the White House of a man who jumped the mansion’s fence. Congress has, as with the Secret Service director, lost confidence in VOA’s senior leaders. So has the administration and the State Department (not to mention the agency’s rank and file, as clearly shown by the disastrous OPM viewpoint survey results just released). To the agency’s senior leaders I say: Your time is over. The only question now is whether you will do the right thing.