Agency tries to improve its low employee morale

Joe Davidson
Columnist February 18

When it comes to employee morale in federal agencies, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has long lived among the dregs.

It’s still there, but the BBG is trying hard to move to a better neighborhood.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

This isn’t a success story, at least not yet.

This is a story about a federal agency that recognizes it can’t continue to live near or at the bottom of employee morale surveys. Success might be coming, but a lot of work remains.

The BBG, which oversees the government’s international broadcasting operations, is doing that work. Here’s some of what’s happening:

Agency directors and senior staff hold face-time sessions in the cafeteria for informal talks with employees, a “Civility Campaign” addresses labor-management issues, and a Workplace Engagement Initiative takes a deeper dive into the agency’s low morale ratings.

Some of the morale-boosting events are meant to be fun, such as the raffle during the fitness-center open house, a chocolate bake-off in time for Valentine’s Day, and ●after-work gatherings — a bingo night, happy hour, checkers and chess.

It’s going to take all that and some sustained work to improve the agency’s failing report cards.

In all nine categories rated in the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, the BBG was lower than the government-wide average and ranked at or very near the bottom in many. The good news — such as it is : The BBG was almost average in the job-satisfaction category.

Since 2007, the BBG has been at or near the bottom in the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government”ratings, issued by the Partnership for Public Service and using FEVS data.

Nonetheless, the agency’s workforce “has an enormous belief in the mission,” said André Mendes, BBG director of global operations. Management can use that to leverage morale.

“A lot of it is about communication and the ability to make people feel that what they are doing is indeed accomplishing the mission they are so in love with,” he added. “So the communication between management and employees has to be dramatically improved.”

Mendes said the BBG is experiencing “massive audience gains” and reaches 206 million people weekly through its various platforms, including Voice of America and its online operations.

He is part of a three-person management team that is transitioning the agency from leadership by a board of directors to a chief executive officer. Mendes thinks having a CEO will be “a tremendous improvement.”

The board of directors setup was a big problem.

In January 2013, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, said “our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.” The week before that, a report by the State Department inspector general called the board “dysfunctional.” The BBG’s ombudsman slot was vacant from 2006 to 2010, and the agency did not have its own employee assistance program counselor from May 2010 until May 2011.

“Morale at the agency is still abysmal,” said Timothy Shamble, president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ BBG local. He and Mendes complained about the morale-sapping impact of budget uncertainties in recent years. Employees threatened with layoffs generally were spared, but their spirits were zapped.

The BBG has “a lot more work to do,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that studies federal workplace issues. The PPS has worked with the BBG on its Workplace Engagement Initiative.

The PPS was paid about $84,000 for a series of workshops and other activities that helped the agency to develop a “methodology that we lacked previously” for improving employee engagement, said Ina Katherine Buckley, one of the BBG’s engagement initiative coordinators.

Barbara Brady, another coordinator, said, “We’re still very early on in this process,” which could take three to five years to complete.

The survey results are used as a tool to identify problems. The workshops, like focus groups with about 15 employees in each of seven sessions, examined the root causes in problem areas.

“Leadership was a key area in every session,” said the PPS’s Mark Doboga. The PPS trained BBG employees in “action planning” so they can continue the work of morale improvement.

“This agency is not about bad news anymore,” Mendes said. “This agency is about good news.”

Time will tell.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/
JoeDavidson
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