Voice of America gets flak over outsourcing decision

In a strongly worded letter to VOA Director David Jackson, 14 Democratic senators said the shift would undermine VOA's mandate to "present a balanced and therefore comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions."

Impartial advocates?

According to its charter, VOA must further long-term American interests by "presenting the policies of the United States clearly and effectively" while remaining a "consistently reliable and authoritative source of news."

That ambiguous language, which seems to provide for both advocacy and journalistic objectivity, lies at the heart of an ongoing tension over VOA's mission. The decision to move eight jobs to Hong Kong has inflamed that tension far beyond the number of employees affected.

The news service, which has been on air since 1942, receives its funding from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees more than a half-dozen government-sponsored international broadcasting services, such as Radio Free Asia and Radio Sawa, a U.S.-funded Arab-language pop music and news station.

VOA has a budget of almost $160 million and employs more than 1,400 workers. Some of them work overseas, but they are either U.S. citizens or freelance workers hired by regional VOA bureaus. The service has never before moved an entire news shift overseas, and critics are afraid it won't be the last.

Some, including the senators who signed the letter, hold that VOA's function as a mouthpiece for American values precludes it from contracting out writing work to non-citizens.

"We find it difficult to believe VOA will be able to satisfy its mission of projecting `significant American thought' through non-American citizens," the letter said.

One of the signatories is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), last year's Democratic presidential nominee and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Jackson sees things differently. He said expansion in East Asia will allow the service to be closer to an increasingly important source of news.

Aside from its government funding, the director said the distinctions between VOA and other international news networks are few and far between.

`We don't do propaganda'

"We are independent journalists," Jackson said. "We cover stories because they're news. We don't do propaganda."

In this light, he said, the Hong Kong decision was nothing more than an efficiency measure--a way to get news to international audiences more quickly. "We need to move faster to cover news, and we need to be closer to the action," Jackson said.

Some labor groups don't buy it. Although the job shuffle will involve only eight employees, it will save VOA almost $300,000, mostly in health-care costs. The powerful American Federation of Government Employees argues that VOA's decision is financially motivated.

John Threlkeld, a lobbyist with the federation, said the posts in question are not for reporters but for English language news writers--positions he said need no proximity to the source of the news.

Tim Shamble, president of the Washington chapter of AFGE, questioned Jackson's interpretation of VOA's mission.

"Voice of America is a publicly funded broadcaster with a clearly defined charter," Shamble said. "You write news from the American perspective. You're never going to have a huge audience. You're not a commercial broadcaster."

Each of the eight writers affected staffs the midnight shift in VOA's Washington office, and they would be transferred to other jobs in the agency's Washington headquarters.

Jackson said VOA has processed transfer requests for all eight employees, and that no jobs will be lost during the transition.

Although plans to move operations to the Hong Kong bureau were announced in April, no definitive hiring decisions have yet to be made. VOA hopes to have the new Hong Kong staff active within the next few months.


EPA selects jobs for outsourcing
About 200 agency positions will be up for competition each year
BY David Perera
Published on Jun. 20, 2005

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A wide range of federal jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency considered exempt from competitive sourcing efforts are being reclassified as eligible for bidding by the private sector.
The EPA's Competitive Sourcing Council is working to publicly identify by July which functional areas will be eligible for public/private competition through 2008, according to a memo sent to agency employees June 14.
The council's recommendations will be reflected in the agency's Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act registry of jobs eligible for competition, an EPA spokeswoman said. Updated FAIR Act reports are due to the Office of Management and Budget by June 30.
Competitive sourcing is a controversial part of the President's Management Agenda. It encourages agencies to cut costs by competing with the private sector for federal jobs that are not inherently governmental.
"You will see a very broad spectrum of positions" newly slated for competition, said Kim Nelson, the EPA's chief information officer, speaking last week to an industry audience. "There's now an absolute firm commitment by management at EPA to look at job classification much more broadly than we did before."
Data analysis, for example, is not inherently governmental, Nelson said. Only the policy decisions made as a result of that analysis need to be handled by civil servants, she said.
Starting this year, an average of 200 EPA positions will be competed each year for the next four years. In 2005, most of those jobs will be in information technology and administrative support, the memo states. Federal employees won 91 percent of all job competitions in fiscal 2004, although OMB officials say they want more private-sector wins.
OMB officials released guidance last month that instructs agencies that no job except for contracting officers should automatically be exempt from competitive sourcing.
The EPA has competed 38 positions. Institutional resistance toward competitive sourcing has prevented the agency from competing jobs, Nelson added. It is difficult for many EPA employees to believe that more positions could possibly be performed by the private sector, she said. IT contractors already outnumber in-house IT workers by 10 to 1.
Back-office functions moved to cross-agency service centers will be counted as jobs that have been competitively sourced, Nelson said, adding that the EPA will be among the agencies that eliminate an in-house financial management system and convert to an outside solution in the next year.
Agency plans drew criticism from two of the unions that represent EPA workers, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU).
The definition of inherently governmental jobs "has not changed, and our employees' jobs have not changed, so it is difficult to imagine how Ms. Nelson plans to reclassify inherently governmental functions as suddenly commercial and thus fair game for privatization," said Diana Price, an AFGE procurement specialist.
The EPA has not built a business case for more competitive sourcing, said Colleen Kelley, NTEU's president.
"It's unfortunate that the agency cannot obtain support for business process improvement and process re-engineering activities that would retain jobs and improve efficiency in a far less disruptive and less costly way," she said.


Controversial to the max
DHS is moving quickly to deploy a pay-for-performance system
BY Michael Arnone
Published on Jun. 20, 2005
The Homeland Security Department is pushing hard to set up MaxHR, a human resources information system for most of the department. But Congress, employee unions and outside experts have questioned DHS' haste and are increasingly skeptical of some features of the new system.
MaxHR will support a pay-for-performance approach to employee raises and promotions. DHS employees are currently paid based on the 15-grade General Schedule pay scale that federal agencies have used for 50 years. The new system seeks to give managers more flexibility to reassign employees.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he supports the changes as part of his review of the department. Chertoff emphasized that DHS needs to be more responsive to risks, vulnerabilities and consequences of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Results of the review are expected in early July.
This month, during his first appearance before the House Government Reform Committee, Chertoff told lawmakers that the rapid deployment of the new human resources system is essential for DHS employees to become more efficient and accountable. Delays will only cause more anxiety, he said.
Chertoff asked House lawmakers to restore $26 million they removed from the $53 million budget request for MaxHR.
But some committee members questioned why DHS was rushing ahead after Defense Department officials said they plan to take stock of their proposed pay-for-performance system before proceeding.
Bush administration officials have said they want to move ahead with the civil service changes, and Office of Personnel Management officials said they want to use MaxHR as a template for such changes governmentwide. OPM is preparing draft legislation to extend personnel reforms governmentwide.
"It's pretty widely known that DHS needs to do this," said a source familiar with the proposed pay-for-performance transformation who requested anonymity because it is such a sensitive subject for department leaders and employees.
Pay for performance is DHS' attempt to create a more innovative and motivated workforce, the source said, adding that DHS officials are pushing hard to define workable requirements for the MaxHR system.
DHS is not rushing its implementation of MaxHR, department spokesman Larry Orluskie said. The project has been under development for the past 18 months with experts from across DHS deciding on best practices, he said, adding that the program continues to progress. For example, in April
DHS signed a $1.5 million contract with Softscape for performance management software.
DHS officials are cautious when discussing MaxHR because they are afraid to confront the unions, said a DHS official who requested anonymity. Private-sector partners are also loath to discuss the program for fear of alienating DHS and losing access to future contracts, the official said.
Unions have vehemently opposed the changes at DHS, complaining that they would reduce employees' collective bargaining rights and loosen management's requirements to consult unions on decisions.
"It's killing morale," said Chuck Showalter, president of the National Homeland Security Council. The council is affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees, a union with 22,000 DHS employees as members.
Pay for performance would make law enforcement officers, inspectors and agents compete against one another instead of working as a team, Showalter said. If Congress doesn't appropriate enough money for pay for performance, officers with better numbers or living in more expensive areas would take money away from others, he said.
Additionally, rewarding agents who arrest more people won't make them more effective, Showalter said. Instead, it will lead to lawsuits and damage the public's trust in law enforcement, he said.
The proposed changes would give managers unchecked power over employees and gut grievance procedures, Showalter said.
Under MaxHR, every manager becomes "judge, jury, executioner and witness in the case, and there's no outside appeal," he said. "It's a kangaroo court."


Billions spent to secure foreign borders, but not our own
June 21, 2005 1:06 am
On April 30, the volunteer group known as the Minutemen completed its scheduled 30-day vigil on the border with Mexico to illuminate the lack of enforcement by our government ["Volunteers claim patrols a model for sealing borders," May 2].
It seems that in response to the success of this nonviolent display of American frustration, a dozen Border Patrol agents confirmed to The Washington Times that Michael Nicely, agent-in-charge of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, ordered them to reduce the apprehension of illegal aliens crossing the border.
The agents said they had been instructed to "stand down" from arresting illegal aliens near where Minutemen protestors had patrolled in April.
The agents understood that an increase in arrests would prove the effectiveness of extra manpower on the border and would credit the Minutemen's approach.
Several sources, including the president of the National Border Patrol Council, have confirmed the newspaper report.
I would like to know how Rep. Jo Ann Davis feels about appropriating more than $300 billion over the past four years to secure borders around Israel, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan while watching our Border Patrol issue orders to not enforce existing laws.
We have increased the budgets of these departments to the point of poverty, and here is an official telling his men not to do their jobs.
If this is true, and goes without comment from congressional representatives, our leaders have truly disconnected themselves from their oath to represent and defend our country.
They don't deserve our support and should be forced to comply with our laws. I do not think this man acted in a vacuum.
This demonstrates the current administration's lack of concern for our nation's security. Something is very wrong here.

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