An Argument Against a CEO from BBG employee union

AFGE Local 1812The employee union at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, has published an article arguing against appointing an agency CEO without proper Congressional oversight. The union is not opposed to the idea that the BBG needs a strong executive but believes that he or she should be appointed by the President, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and fully accountable to Congress and American taxpayers, in addition to being accountable to BBG members.

The union sees the current proposal of a CEO who would not be accountable to Congress as a power grab on the part of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) senior executives who are accused by rank and file employees and outside critics of making the agency dysfunctional. IBB executives have been rated in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) surveys as the worst managers in the Federal Government.

The union and most rank and file employees believe that the IBB senior staff has brought the BBG to the brink of disaster by ignoring the Board and the agency’s employees. The union also believes that the Board shares the blame for keeping the worst Federal Government managers in charge of U.S. international broadcasting.

The union also comes to the defense of BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe, whom they describe as “the only member who really cares enough about how this place operates that he reaches out to employees directly. He actually communicates with the unions to find out what we believe are the problems that have lead to the BBG being identified as the ‘worse place in government to work.’”

It is widely believed that IBB executives were responsible for feeding their own negative opinions about Ambassador Ashe to OIG inspectors because he tried to hold senior managers responsible for their mistakes and highlighted examples of waste and mismanagement.

“What this operation really needs is an Agency Director, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate as well as a change in the law that created this monster: the International Broadcasting Act of 1994. Ostensibly, that law created a fire-wall that was meant to prevent government (particularly the State Department) interference in the mission of the BBG and the Voice of America so that the broadcasts could remain journalistically sound. However, the senior executive staff has used this provision to justify ignoring congressional inquiries. A Director would be accountable to Congress, the overseer of the taxpayer’s money, in open hearings where tough questions should be asked and management would be required to answer honestly under oath.”

An Argument Against a CEO

by American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812

The latest report from the State Department’s Office of Inspector General paints an extremely dark and gloomy picture of the part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors by calling it “dysfunctional.”
AFGE Local 1812 called the report a “Hatchet Job” because it singles out and impugns the integrity and dedication of Board Member Victor Ashe. He is probably the only member who really cares enough about how this place operates that he reaches out to employees directly. He actually communicates with the unions to find out what we believe are the problems that have lead to the BBG being identified as the “worse place in government to work.”

The Washington Post (Al Kamen and Joe Davidson) ran with the story along with the Daily News in New York, Radio World and BBG Watch among others.

When your Union officers go to Capitol Hill and point out these problems to lawmakers who have the power and authority to do something, we get very similar responses. “Yes, we would like to fix the problem, but where do we begin?”

The OIG thinks the solution is to create a full-time CEO who would run the day-to-day operations of the dysfunctional BBG.

AFGE Local 1812 thinks not! In the private sector, a good CEO produces a well-run organization and is responsible to a Board of Directors and can be removed. If the BBG had a CEO to run everything, that person would probably, on paper, be accountable to the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG (a board that, as the Washington Post’s Davidson has written, is beyond hope) has seemingly acted as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the senior management officials here and would therefore more than likely give them through the CEO free rein to do as they please without having a Board to prevent some of the most egregious mistakes. In addition the CEO would no doubt end up being one of the senior management officials or someone they prefer.

The title also smacks of the desire to privatize the entire operation allowing it to function without any Congressional oversight. We do agree that a part-time Board simply cannot run this organization. Someone needs to have the authority to make final decisions and also needs to be here on a fulltime basis.

What this operation really needs is an Agency Director, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate as well as a change in the law that created this monster: the International Broadcasting Act of 1994. Ostensibly, that law created a fire-wall that was meant to prevent government (particularly the State Department) interference in the mission of the BBG and the Voice of America so that the broadcasts could remain journalistically sound. However, the senior executive staff has used this provision to justify ignoring congressional inquiries. A Director would be accountable to Congress, the overseer of the taxpayer’s money, in open hearings where tough questions should be asked and management would be required to answer honestly under oath.

We have seen many letters from the BBG to members of Congress which say, in effect, you are sticking your nose in our business and that’s a violation of the separation of powers. We are part of the executive branch and you are part of the legislative branch. The BBG hides behind the law ostensibly because they fear that Congress might interfere with the editorial integrity of the professional staff – the grunts – who work tirelessly to produce its world caliber product. What they use as a shield is really an excuse to do as they please and destroy what has been a credible source of information since World War II.

Why shouldn’t Congress keep a close watch on this $725 million conglomeration of organizations (VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network)? Because, we know from listening to a few upper, mid and lower-level managers, the BBG is scared to death of having to admit they are unable to manage effectively.
Change the law and bring U.S. International Broadcasting under the watchful and, we would hope, critical eye of lawmakers. Demand that an Agency Director go before the Senate for confirmation hearings and allow Congress to hold periodic hearings to determine if the Agency Director is doing his/her job by making sure that the Agency entities perform according to their various Charters.

The power of the purse can be a mighty powerful incentive to keep the operations it oversees from running amuck.

One glaring example of a debacle that may have been averted with the proper oversight is the recent situation that occurred at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty when the now former head of that grantee fired en-masse the Russian staff in Moscow for no journalistically plausible reason. There is speculation that it was done in order to please Russian President Putin. The same type of speculation followed the attempted elimination of the VOA Chinese broadcasts to China immediately after the Chinese premier visited Washington, D.C. Some employees worry that the broadcasts are being used as pawns in some sort of foreign policy political game.

The problems are not with the employees but with the various agendas including those among the senior executive staff who, through budget allocations, have forced the in-fighting among VOA/ OCB -the federal entities – and the surrogates.

VOA has 75 percent of the audience of all U.S. International Broadcasting but gets only 25 percent of the total BBG budget. The grantees look at the big, fat pile of money and want more at the expense of VOA. Yet, they don’t produce the results.

VOA must report where it spends its money to Congress and must notify Congress when it plans on making changes in programming or operations. The surrogates take the money and run and give little explanation of how they spend it.

It’s no wonder lawmakers are so confused. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Ok) has called this place “The most worthless organization in the federal government.”

Something is terribly wrong with this picture and we urge Congress, in the strongest possible terms, to gain some control over this “dysfunctional” organization.

As representatives of nearly 900 employees at VOA, the Greenville, N.C. Relay Station and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, we think this is the best solution.

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