Morale boosting plan made some BBG employees highly skeptical

BBG Watch Commentary

What a great way to boost morale

One employee said that he was literally sick in his stomach listening to and watching Internatinal Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives, who have made the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) the worst managed federal agency, explaining to the staff how IBB and VOA managers are being put in charge of improving employee morale by the man who should have fixed the problem long time ago — IBB Director Dick Lobo — a presidential appointee who has kept the failed management team and year after year approved their performance bonuses while employee morale worsened, as measured in OPM surveys. Global audience stagnated at 2008 levels despite increasing budgets. During that period, IBB senior staff cut many programs and programming positions while building up their own bureaucracy.

Many blame Lobo’s top deputies for the BBG being called “defunct” by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Lobo’s deputies in turn tried to put the blame on BBG members, spreading false and nasty rumors about them to OIG investigators and others in Washington. Clinton was an ex officio BBG member while in office. Lobo appears to have sided with his senior staffers against the Board. For the first time, however, BBG members have retaliated by rejecting some of IBB’s recent recommendations and demanding better treatment of employees and accountability on the part of top bureaucrats. Thanks to the pressure from BBG members, no furloughs are anticipated this year at the agency and IBB is at least going through the motions of addressing the employee morale issue.

The idea is good, but the implementation is absurd, one observer noted. While the latest morale boosting plan appears to be in many respects a diversionary attempt by top bureaucrats to save their own jobs, it is in a way an admission that IBB senior staffers are feeling the heat from the Board.

Some say that Lobo is a nice man, but he appears to lack energy and a desire to force change upon his senior executives. He did not replace a single one among those of his top aides who are widely viewed as being primarily responsible for the management crisis and dismal employee morale.

BBG members are at wits end what to do about the problem. Not seeing any effective action from Lobo, some BBG members have latched onto the idea of an agency CEO as a solution, but critics warn this may only strengthen the central IBB bureaucracy. BBG members cannot replace a presidential appointee without approval from the White House, hence some are calling for a CEO who would be selected by the Board.

There is, however, an easier solution to the agency’s management crisis that can radically transform the current management culture at the agency almost instantaneously.

What rank and file employees and union leaders have known for a long time, some BBG members are beginning to realize just now–that nothing short of replacing most of the current top IBB management team will save the agency from continuing in its decline. But even BBG members don’t believe that it will happen because IBB’s SESs appear to have convinced them that they cannot be fired. In this environment, Lobo’s latest effort to improve employee morale is seen by many employees as a mockery because of his decision to put some of the failed top executives in charge of the process.

“As you can see, the usual suspects are in charge,” one person observed.

“This is absurd! I am so angry right now. I have to take a few hours to calm down, ” another employee said.

The announcement about a new initiative to address morale issues at the Voice of America (VOA), the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) was made to the staff in an event in the auditorium hosted by David Ensor, Dick Lobo and the head of Radio/TV Marti Carlos García-Pérez. The initiative is based on work done in cooperation with a group called Partnership for Public Service, a non-government non-profit organization that claims to have had considerable success in raising morale at other government agencies.

The objective is to improve workplace communication, transparency, accountability and fairness, an IBB announcement said. The upbeat announcement also had this:

“Recently the agency conferred with the Partnership for Public Service on ways to strengthen staff engagement and make BBG a better place to work. A great many staffers participated in lively workshops designed to identify specific actions to help begin addressing long-standing challenges at the BBG.

Agency management has compiled a list of those actions, along with actions gleaned from employee survey data, and is proposing a Workplace Engagement Action Plan.”

It was reported that PPS conducted a wide-ranging survey of VOA staff and followed up with a number of focus groups to identify major problems within VOA and get staff recommendations on what areas most need to be addressed. Based on those results, a total of 13 Action Items have been created, each with an Action Team Leader. Volunteers from across the agency are being sought to work with the team leaders to develop and implement plans to improve performance in each of those areas. A group of eight people has been trained by PPS to serve as neutral “facilitators.”

VOA employees can see action items on an internal website.

Action Item: Develop an internal communications strategy to consistently communicate organizational goals, objectives, priorities, and performance expectations in a timely manner to staff at all levels in the agency.

Action Item: Management skills

Action Item: Integrating strategic plan

Action Item: Improve the consistency and credibility of agency performance management processes

Action Item: Operating procedures

Action Item: Develop contractor strategy

Action Item: Performance based rewards and achievement

Action Item: Create review of position descriptions

Action Item: Create process for cross-training

Action Item: Family friendly culture and benefits

Action Item: Telework

Action Item: Agency pride

Action Item: Continue Fostering employee participation in BBG’s health and wellness

Action Item: Create an internal employee development program

Each of the team leaders has until April 19 to develop a set of “milestones” by which progress on their action items will be measured.

David Ensor stressed repeatedly that this is a serious effort and that senior management is committed to improving the agency through this process, one report said.

It was reported that the presentation concluded with a question-and-answer session during which staff members expressed a mix of gratitude that these issues are being addressed, and some skepticism that this will be more successful that previous efforts to address morale issues.

According to one report, the skeptical comments fell into two main areas:

1. It was noted by more than one person that the team leaders charged with fixing the problems are in many cases the same senior managers who were in charge at the agency as these problems developed.

2. There were suggestions that senior management is erecting an elaborate new bureaucracy to address the problems created by the existing elaborate bureaucracy.

It was reported that one of the senior managers acknowledged the first point, saying “We get that people don’t trust some of the senior managers.”

According to one report, Ensor said these team leaders were chosen because they have the authority to make sure that things get done, and that the agency’s senior managers were deliberately being put in a position where they have to “step up.” He also said their annual performance evaluations will be based in part on their performance on the action items.

It was also reported that on the second point, Dick Lobo pointed out that this approach was designed by the Partnership for Public Service and it has been successful in other federal agencies. He acknowledged that this program will not change VOA overnight but called it a “solid first step.” He called it the beginning of a “new era” and stressed that senior management is “going to try to make things change.”

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AFGE Local 1812 Article

HOPE DOESN’T ALWAYS SPRING ETERNAL

By American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812

AFGE Local 1812As parts of the Midwest and the Northeast have been encased in snow, even though Spring has officially sprung, we know that the prediction of the rodent affectionately known as Punxsutawney Phil was dead wrong. Reluctantly, we have to say the same about the latest Action Plan for turning around the BBG, which year after year is named the worst Agency in the federal government, in the estimation of the OPM Employee Viewpoint survey.

When the Agency brought in the Partnership for Public Service for consultation with great fanfare some months ago, there was hope among some employees, including the union, that maybe this time there would be some positive changes. PPS representatives did sit down with the union for its perspectives and in an almost two-hour meeting spoke with the members of the Executive Board. Then there were workshops and interviews and promises made to buoy hope. In the end, after all was said and done, a less-than-satisfactory morale improvement action plan was released.

Unfortunately, the plan has the typical jargon of an entrenched bureaucracy. We have those typical generic statements: “Implement a robust manager training program….” and then “Develop an internal communications strategy to consistently communicate organizational goals….” “Improve the consistency…of agency performance management process.” And on and on.

But the real shocker? Some of the very people who have been responsible for the creation of the worst morale in the federal government have been put in charge of identifying the problems and improving morale. We won’t name names here as that is not our policy but we know through employee reports and our own experience that some of the worst managers responsible in the plummeting morale are now in charge of supposedly turning things around.

In fact, one of the questions at the Town Hall meeting unveiling this plan zeroed in on the core issue when someone asked: How were the action leaders chosen?  This is an issue because some of these folks are the very same people who were responsible for the poor morale in the first place?

We can only envision endless task forces as, for example, the year-long employee-management group that made recommendations for Performance Management that went into some black hole and was never implemented. We see the continuation of the five-year-long evaluation of the performance appraisal system that goes nowhere. We can only expect a continuation of the refusal of the legal honchos in the Agency to implement decisions made by Arbitrators and the FLRA, basically ignoring the rule of law. Negotiations in which management representatives attempt to gut the Union Contract still stretch on endlessly with no resolution in sight. The off-with-their-heads mentality will continue to rule in labor-employee relations as it looks as if punitive measures will escalate. And in a budget crunch, the only management solution will be to RIF employees while the top managers will continue to rule with an iron hand.

Several months ago, a red flag was raised when an official from the Partnership for Public Service which was contracted with to analyze the acute morale problem in our Agency wrote a flattering piece about VOA Director David Ensor in the Washington Post. Oddly, there was no mention of the staggering morale problems besieging the Agency. Just recently another article appeared in the Post extolling the work of a VOA reporter. We are not questioning the well-deserved praise given to a VOA employee as we have many talented unsung heroes working with great dedication in this hostile workplace. However, we also find it odd that the article was written by the Partnership for Public Service and not the BBG. Which brings up the question: was this within the scope of the PPS contract with the Agency? Has it now been entrusted with the public relations function of the BBG even though there already is a robust public relations division in the Agency?

To turn things around, baseball and football teams dwelling in the cellars of their leagues bring in new blood to invigorate their teams: hire new coaches and change the mindset of defeat. Unfortunately, that rarely happens in an entrenched bureaucracy where any change is viewed with great suspicion because it challenges the status quo.

Punxsutawney Phil was wrong so those who believed he was right are shivering in a winter that never ends. And the winter of discontent, if the latest morale improvement action plan perpetuates the problems, will continue among the international broadcasting employees at the VOA and OCB who deserve so much better.

Makes us feel as if we’re in the film Groundhog Day where each day the sun rises and the very same scenario happens again and again.
 

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