BBG Watch Guest Commentary

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

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What’s the difference between the VA and VOA?

By A Voice of America Journalist

The Veteran’s Administration (VA) and the Voice of America (VOA) are very different agencies with very different missions. But in at least two areas they are almost mirror images:

1. They are important federal agencies that are hobbled by incompetent, entrenched senior managers.

2. And they fail to execute their most basic mission.

In the case of the VA, it is failing to “fulfill President Lincoln’s promise: ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans,” and in the case of VOA failing to uphold the agency’s 1976 VOA Charter, part of which proclaims: “To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners.”

These agencies find themselves in the fix they are in partly because they have failed to create a culture of accountability, protestations to the contrary from their leaders notwithstanding. Acceptance of mediocrity seems baked in to the agencies’ cultures; no one is fired (the ultimate act of accountability) and even the most incompetent and venal of managers suffers, at worse, only a transfer or an early retirement. In most cases, at least at VOA, they are shuffled off to another part of the agency where they will continue to do damage, or they are made “senior advisors.”

The conservative Washington Examiner recently looked at the VA’s management problems (“Risky reforms at VA leave unethical execs on payroll,” by Mark Flatten, Watchdog Reporter, The Washington Examiner September 22, 2014).

The similarities between VA and VOA are startling.

The column quoted Cheri Cannon, described as “a labor lawyer who used to represent federal agencies in personnel matters…who now represents employees challenging agency decisions” saying a new law that gives the VA secretary the power to quickly fire incompetent senior leaders will not be the panacea Congress and the president hope it will be. Firing is one thing, she said. Changing the culture of an organization is much more difficult, she told The Washington Examiner.

“The cultural refusal to fire people isn’t fixed by changing the statute,” she noted.

The Washington Examiner noted that laws cannot change an agency that has no culture of accountability.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida and the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told The Washington Examiner he is worried that the VA is not willing to fire poor performers.

“So far, we have seen no evidence that the corrupt bureaucrats who created the VA scandal will be purged from the department’s payroll anytime soon. Until that happens, VA will never be fixed,” he said.

Remind you of an agency you know?

The Washington Examiner also noted that for each of the past four years, as the agency was failing at its most basic mission of caring for wounded veterans, every member of its Senior Executive Service “got a positive performance review.” Every one. It noted that OPM records show only three senior executives at the VA have been fired for misconduct or poor performance since 2009. Would this be acceptable in the commercial world? Of course not. So why should it be acceptable in government?

Again, remind you of an agency you know?

VOA, which “suffers from a punishment mentality,” as one former employee put it recently, is quick to document the failings of employees. “Write him up,” is the familiar refrain of one division chief who has had a particularly troubled — and troubling — career at VOA. But that same punishment mentality does not appear to target senior leaders, who get paid the most and have the most responsibility for the agency’s poor performance.

The agency will remove a leader only when pressed to do so and long after damage has been done. For example, an editor might be promoted to a management position and on rare occasions removed from that position, but only after a long period of complaints from nearly every employee. Poor performance, incompetence and morale-killing actions might have been noted for years; worse, the manager might have been the subject of numerous complaints in the past from other agency employees and promoted despite these complaints. The senior management might have had the opportunity under personnel rules to remove the manager during the one-year probation period (when it should have been abundantly clear that the person was not up to the task) and return the manager to a lower-grade position.

But the senior managers never take this step. (When pressed, agency officials cannot come up with even one instance of a newly-promoted leader being removed from his or her position during the probation period, despite the agency’s lack of a leadership development program and the presumption that, being human, some people with excellent technical skills will fail when being promoted to a position of leadership. Why have a probation period if it is never used?) Rather than being fired, a failed manager gets a new title with no clearly specified duties, if there are any at all, and keeps his or her higher grade. They don’t suffered financially for their failures; indeed, they are rewarded with less work.

Agency with one of the lowest OPM employee morale ratings in Federal Government

Let the interim management team (IMT) truly manage the agency until Andy Lack arrives. Or, if Mr. Lack is already at the agency, have him supervise the mass firing of senior executives and managers. Some members of the IMT are reportedly reluctant to clean house even though they want to do just that. They are said to be fearful of “a vacuum.”

But, one must ask, can a vacuum be any worse than what the agency has now?

My guess is a guy with Andy Lack’s decades-long record of success in the cutthroat media world is no stranger to the firing of poor performers. Indeed, removing poor performers is often the only way for an organization to achieve success, as surely he knows. As BBG Watch has noted, Mr. Lack “will inherit a federal agency with many management problems, but that doesn’t mean he can’t solve those problems. People can be fired, even federal employees. Managers can be pushed into early (or long-overdue) retirement. Vacuums can be filled.

Talented people are out there. There is no reason for VOA to continue to suffer the predations of incompetent managers, especially in the media world. The sooner the firings of senior managers begin, the sooner the agency can begin to heal, find its footing, and become the crown jewel it once was.

So, to answer the question asked in the headline, what is the difference between the VA and VOA?

Not much.

And when it comes to holding senior managers accountable, there is no difference — one is a dead lion and the other is a dead tiger. But they’re both dead at the top and rotting in the sun. And the stench from both of their executive offices is overwhelming.

ALSO READ: ‘The Andy Lack?’ Voice of America journalist puzzled but cautiously hopeful, BBG Watch, By a Voice of America Journalist, September 24, 2014