For a federal agency that few Americans have heard of and almost none likely will use, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG ) sure can gin up some controversy.

Just last week it began compensating people who were improperly fired in 2009 from the anachronistic Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Its election night coverage three weeks ago was the target of derisive comments on BBG Watch , an online publication by current and former employees. Year after year, including this one, the BBG is a loser on key employee survey questions.

The agency oversees government-produced radio, television and online programming from the United States to the rest of the world. In addition to the Cuba service, its stable includes the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio Free Asia.

The latest controversy concerns hundreds of contractors who produce much of the programming. They complain about the agency’s new plan to have them hired by private staffing firms instead of the BBG’s practice of contracting directly with the workers. The BBG acknowledges that it expects no significant savings from the new contracting model and increases in per-contractor spending of up to 30 percent. With no boost in funding, that could mean fewer workers and some programming cuts, because the staffing agencies will have to take a slice from the same money pie. Annual expenditures for contractors, who are more than a third of the BBG’s workforce, are about $36 million. The first phase of transitioning contractors from direct agency hires to outside staffing agencies is scheduled to be completed this month.

VOA , by far the largest BBG network, uses about 660 contractors who work on programs in 45 languages, according to a December BBG document. That’s been an administrative pain for the agency and led to complaints from the Internal Revenue Service and the State Department inspector general’s office about BBG contracting improprieties.

In June, the inspector general found that the BBG “allowed contractors to work without having valid contracts or secured funding in place,” exceeded “its statutory authority to award personal service contracts” and “had not complied with Federal regulations related to procurement.” An IRS audit found that certain contractors should have been treated “as employees for tax reporting purposes, including by withholding income and Social Security taxes,” according to an internal BBG briefing paper .

To ease its administrative pain, the BBG decided to hire outside firms that would employ the contractors. It’s a model other agencies use. Many of the contractors don’t object to that in principle, but they fear that in practice the BBG plan could lead to lower pay or fewer workers.

This month, more than 150 contractors sent a letter to BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell, with copies to 31 members of Congress, urging additional funding “necessary to avoid any cuts in contractor positions or pay which would subsequently force cuts to programming — including programming to Russia, China, Iran and other high-priority targeted regions of the world. Such cuts would further threaten the core mission of U.S. international media efforts. . . . However, the agency has not identified the additional funding necessary to avoid cutting content producing positions, wages or both.”

A few of the signatures are like chicken scratches, so illegible that BBG officials probably cannot recognize the names. No contractor would comment on the record. One said the fear of retaliation by the agency is strong.

Letitia King, a BBG spokeswoman, said the agency is tracking cost estimates. “We have to evaluate our programming relative to the human capital (employees and contractors) we can afford each year,” she said. “We remain committed to our goal of continuing to provide high-quality content to our audiences worldwide.”

The new model is expected to increase agency costs significantly.

A Dec. 9 memo to members of the board from Marie Lennon, chief of staff at the International Broadcasting Bureau, the BBG’s administrative arm, said using staffing agencies “would likely cost the Agency at least an additional 30 percent on average for each contractor due to overhead costs for the firm itself.” In January, another memo from Lennon said the anticipated overhead costs would be “in the range of 18-30 percent more than current expenditures.”

Yet, while the new system will ease the BBG’s administrative load, it is not expected to save much money.

In a series of questions and answers on the BBG Web site, the agency said “we anticipate potential savings related to the administration of contracts but not necessarily enough to offset the additional costs of using an outside firm(s). We do not anticipate that this new contracting model will generate significant cost savings to the agency.”

Then something — or someone — has to give.

The contract workers fear it will be them and the programming they produce.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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