Will IBB make exploited and powerless VOA contract employees pay the price of sequestration?

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG member Michael Meehan

Michael Meehan

At the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) meeting last week, Governor Michael Meehan announced that BBG Board members have instructed the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) senior executive staff to minimize any impact of sequestration on Agency employees, especially with regard to any BBG employee furloughs.

Governor Meehan and other BBG Governors should be applauded for taking this position. BBG members, especially those who now show up for board and committee meetings, have become far more engaged in recent months and are more closely monitoring what the IBB bureaucracy is doing or fails to do.

We hear, however, that if sequestration continues, the executive staff in the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Voice of America (VOA) may try to target the most vulnerable group of employees — contract employees who now constitute over 30 percent of VOA workforce.

If IBB and VOA senior staffers propose significant cuts in the number of work assignments for rank and file VOA contract employees, this would in effect amount to furloughs and would be contrary to what the Board wants, sources told BBG Watch. Officially, however, IBB Director Richard Lobo and VOA Director David Ensor can announce that there will be no employee furloughs at the BBG, because VOA contract employees are not technically Agency employees.

If they are allowed to use this approach, IBB Director Richard Lobo and his senior staffers would also protect themselves from any furloughs and from cutting their own pay. In our view, furloughing senior IBB and VOA executives, cutting their bonuses and travel, and eliminating wasteful corporate contracts would be the fairest way of achieving budget cuts.

What this group of executives may try to do instead is to deprive quietly the most underpaid group of Voice of America broadcasters–who have no rights to defend themselves–of some of their work assignments on which these exploited and completely powerless contract employees fully depend. Many of them are in fact full-time employees, but are denied benefits and legal rights.

Targeting a large number of VOA contract employees for work assignment cuts may also allow IBB senior staffers to protect their favorite corporate contractors, including Gallup. Even though Gallup is now the target of a Department of Justice lawsuit, accusing it of illegally overcharging other federal agencies, IBB senior staffers continue to defend their highly controversial $50 million five-year Gallup contract.

It is important to note that despite having spent millions upon millions of dollars on audience research, IBB strategic planners have not managed to increase BBG’s global weekly audience by even one person since about 2008.

What the BBG should do is to terminate the Gallup contract. The Agency should find another, more trustworthy contractor and settle on a more modest and more targeted audience research methodology that focuses more on measuring impact.

The IBB needs to have far fewer highly-paid positions in its executive suites and far less foreign travel by top officials, especially those who in the last five years have not delivered on their promises of building audiences. Many of them should find other, more productive jobs and, if necessary, could be furloughed without any negative impact on programming or the Agency’s mission.

But these IBB senior staffers are well aware that VOA contract employees do not participate in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee viewpoint surveys, which have rated them as being the worst managers in the federal government. VOA contract employees seem like an easy target for any sequestration cuts.

The question we want to ask is: Will IBB senior staffers make exploited and powerless VOA contract employees pay the price of sequestration to protect their own salaries and to make themselves look good for “avoiding furloughs”?

We hope not.

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