Moving Forward, VOA Haunted by Its Past

Original post, July 16, 2016

It’s a new day at VOA, with new leadership – from the outside world, no less, which has created a glimmer of new hope, albeit guarded.

How many management teams has VOA had over the years? It’s hard to keep count. But each comes in with bright ideas and new ways of reinventing the wheel their predecessors tried to reinvent – and failed, leaving the agency worse for wear than when they inherited it.

Here’s the thing: You get a brand new leadership team, forward-looking, with experience from the world outside VOA. And then what happens? Those that inform the new team are the managers whose failed experiments have put VOA at the bleak crossroads where it stands today.

Today’s VOA is uncertain. It wants to be free, but cannot proceed without a Congressional nod. It wants to be digital but is tangled up in the red tape of its past. It wants to be a digital presence but is held back by so many barriers that it is at a standstill.

VOA has so much talent and potential it is dizzying to think how undersold and misappropriated these talents are. It is not that they are not appreciated. It is that they are taxed to exhaustion. There are never enough bodies to do the job; meaning those that are tackling all that needs to be done are burned out rather quickly. This is not to say they are overworked, but that there are countless job positions that have been abandoned or left unfilled over the years that the staff cannot keep up with adequately producing the product.

Over the past decade, it was management positions that got filled, often with higher grades. VOA carves into the underbelly almost to the bone; and piles on the fat at the top. That’s the way it has been for many years now. In this situation, people have given up hope on change because change just doesn’t happen. It just recycles past failures and creates new ones. It is as if VOA is cursed with bad managers and bad decisions that trigger a domino effect, leading to even more bad decisions.

It is important to note that an ill-advised appointment or a bad decision in an agency of this size and with the kind of mission it has invariably makes the job of any new management team that much more difficult.

On top of this, failed managers don’t get booted out; they get promoted. And if they’re lucky, then a few years down the road, they will get reassigned to wreak havoc on a new division. And the cycle goes on.

VOA employees are proud of their work; and they want to do a good job even without badly-needed resources because they love their jobs. But there is a huge morale problem, vividly documented in the annual OPM Human Capital Survey, which is thick in the air in many parts of the agency – and is due, in large part, to bad management decisions.

Perhaps there is hope that the new management team might still save VOA from itself. But how well are they informed? And by whom?

In his Essay on Man, poet Alexander Pope coined the proverb: “Hope springs eternal” which some have interpreted as meaning that people will keep on hoping, no matter what the odds.

If, however, our modus operandi persists in reflecting the words of Albert Einstein: Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, we are certainly doomed.

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