BBG Watch Commentary
Some Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employees are scratching their heads to explain a recent announcement by new BBG CEO John Lansing that two longtime BBG officials, SES (Senior Executive Service) executives Jeff Trimble and Marie Lennon, will assume new duties which appear to be critical to reforming the ailing agency.
Agency sources speaking on the condition of anonymity said that Lansing has tasked Trimble and Lennon with shrinking the bloating BBG bureaucracy as part of his yet to be fully unveiled management reform plan. Reacting to an earlier announcement by Lansing which appears to have repeated some of the former management’s explanations for dismal employee morale at the agency, one rank and file Voice of America (VOA) broadcaster remarked: “I would say so. He [Lansing] seems to already have been co-opted.” Whether it’s true or not still remains to be seen, but several employees we heard from are deeply worried.
The unprecedented bureaucratic bloat at the BBG’s non-media entities, specifically at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), happened while Jeff Trimble and Marie Lennon occupied senior management positions at the federal agency. Trimble has been IBB deputy director for several years. The agency has a very large number of other SES executives with very little to do except attending countless meetings, taking long lunches and traveling abroad. In a recent seven year period, the number if IBB positions rose by 37% while numerous VOA, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts and programming positions were cut on the recommendation of IBB officials.
The bloated bureaucracy seems to have had little real impact on public opinion among audience groups and in countries which are the most important ones for the United States in terms of their threat to U.S. security and strategic importance. BBG and VOA executives claim that a large audience to short VOA placement reports in Mexico and pre-censored placement programs to some other countries, with political news which foreign governments might find offensive eliminated, constitutes a poof of “impact.” Recently, in an apparent effort to impress Lansing, the management resorted to placing a large number of paid Facebook ads to increase the dismally small number of “Likes” on social media pages.
New to the agency (since September 2015), Lansing, a successful former TV cable industry and entertainment TV executive, has no previous U.S. government, international media outreach or public diplomacy and foreign policy experience. “This puts him in a difficult position of having to rely on career government officials at the ailing agency, whether he likes it or not,” sources said. They insist that “Lansing is dead serious about reforming the agency, shrinking the bureaucracy, improving support for media operations and giving media entities more resources to do their jobs.”
VOA with its $206 million budget (27%) is the second largest federal media entity overseen by BBG. The largest one, with a budget of $267 million (34%), is the International Broadcasting Bureau. IBB includes the large bureaucracy and program support, but does not produce any programs.
Broadcasting Board of Governors Appropriations FY2016 Request – 34% IBB COMBINED
As VOA broadcasters and poorly-paid, exploited and unprotected contractors struggle with poor technical support and “are very close to mutiny as they have more work pushed onto them by so-called leaders,” as one commentator put it, many SES and GM-15 managers seem to have plenty of time for international travel at taxpayers’ expense.
“The bullying, the abuse and the disrespect have brought people close to their breaking point,” a VOA staffer said about the entrenched management of many years. The staffer is afraid to speak up publicly but wanted the new CEO to know how some employees feel. If nothing is done to remove failed managers, “the next Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey will show a catastrophic drop,” the employee warned.
Another frustrated BBG employee sent a link to Office of Personnel Management regulations on removals of SES executives. One of the regulations states that “Removal from the SES under §§359.402 through 359.404 may not be made effective within 120 days after— (1) The appointment of a new agency head;…” It is more likely, however, that in the U.S. government setting unwanted managers will be reassigned to lead “special projects” or enticed to consider early retirement or finding a job elsewhere. Defenders of the BBG Chairman point out that several BBG executives have already left the agency, resulting in some improvements in mission focus and employee morale.
Serving in different BBG or VOA executives positions over many years, Trimble and Lennon ran the agency on behalf of the past and current Broadcasting Board of Governors, their immediate bosses and often by themselves (in the case of Jeff Trimble also earlier in a non-federal executive position at RFE/RL) because their immediate bosses and part-time BBG members had a reputation, and still do, of being disengaged.
Their service covers the period when the BBG was described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ex-officio BBG member (in 2013) as “practically defunct.” During their long tenure, the BBG consistently ranked near the bottom in employee job satisfaction and management leadership assessment as measured by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS).
During the same period, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) uncovered numerous violations of government rules and regulations and waste of taxpayers’ money by the agency’s management. BBG Chairman Jeff Shell later said that many of these violations have already been dealt with and resolved. He took issue with OIG’s “ineffective leadership” assessment of the BBG.
Ellona Fritschie, the new Director of Congressional Affairs, may be charged by Chairman Shell and CEO Lansing with presenting arguments against the passage by the full House of Representatives and the Senate of the key reform in the bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill, the United States International Communications Reform Act.
The bill’s authors are: Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). Shell and Lansing are strongly opposed to one particular reform — splitting VOA from BBG’s surrogate broadcasters and having two separate oversight boards and two CEOs. This reform, a key provision in H.R. 2323, is presented by its congressional authors as essential to improve oversight and to shrink the BBG bureaucracy, particularly its International Broadcasting Bureau. Shell and Lansing argue that this provision would make U.S. international media outreach less effective and more difficult to manage. What they want is more congressionally sanctioned authority for the agency’s CEO.
The bipartisan reform legislation had already been approved by all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee where Royce is its Chairman and Engel is its Ranking Member. Both Shell and Lansing are on the record opposing the key reform provision wanted by all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Senior Congressional contacts were surprised that during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 17, 2015, Mr. Lansing kept making the analogy about one team with two coaches in criticizing and rejecting the two-organizations and two-boards legislative proposal. Shell and Lansing are successful entertainment media business executives, but they do not have any substantive experience in government operations, foreign policy formulation or in foreign news and opinion outreach to countries without free media.
Currently, it’s five teams with one coach, and the bipartisan House legislation proposes two teams with two coaches. This makes far more sense to the lawmakers and experts who have testified in favor of the legislation than any argument based purely on what would work best if it were just a private media company in the U.S. selling lowbrow news and entertainment to the largest possible number of consumers to derive maximum profit for the shareholders, a Congressional contact said. That’s a far cry from how U.S. public diplomacy and U.S. international media outreach is set up and how it should and can operate under U.S. law, the same contact added. Another contact pointed out that a successful private sector advertising executive who tried to use a business model to run U.S. public diplomacy during the George W. Bush administration proved spectacularly unsuccessful and had to resign.
But the bipartisan legislation and the structural reform it proposes for splitting the Voice of America from surrogate media outreach and increasing policy coordination and oversight have received overwhelming support from many former BBG members, former senior U.S. diplomats and other experts. While expressing support, some have suggested various minor changes in the bill’s wording, specifically to protect the VOA Charter and journalistic independence.
Matthew Armstrong, who is currently serving on the BBG Board, called the bill’s criticism of the BBG “dated,” “overly harsh,” “not fair” and its language “less than inarticulate“, [sic]. In contrast, recent former BBG members, Dennis Mulhaupt and S. Enders Wimbush, said that the bipartisan bill H.R. 4490 (an earlier version of H.R. 2323) represents “serious reform that actually addresses U.S. international broadcasting’s many challenges.”
The bill’s supporters also include many other prominent former U.S. government officials. Former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE) president Kevin Klose, who had a distinguished career as a Washington Post journalist and president of National Public Radio (NPR), is one of the supporters of H.R. 2323. The independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) also supports splitting the Voice of America from the surrogate media outlets and having the two oversight boards to increase effectiveness and accountability for both VOA and other entities.
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Thursday, December 17, 2015 3:13 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Message from BBG CEO and Director John Lansing RE Personnel Actions for Some Key Positions
As 2015 comes to a close, I want to bring you up-to-date on a number of recent and soon to come personnel actions for some key Agency positions.
I have asked Jeff Trimble to temporarily step in and oversee the areas previously handled by Rob Bole. Rob’s position, Director of Global Strategy, will be eliminated and I’ve asked Jeff to lead a comprehensive review of each of the functional areas that fell under the Global Strategy umbrella, and that team will provide recommendations to me on how best to recast those units to best support the strategic priorities that I have laid out for the Agency.
On Monday, December 14, Ms. Ellona Fritschie joined our team in the position of Director of Congressional Affairs. Ms. Fritschie came to BBG from Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) where she held the position of Director of the Senate and on the Congressional Team. Ellona’s experience at MCC and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee make her particularly well-suited for this position. She is located in Suite 3300 and can be reached by phone at 202-203-4808 and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
I am also pleased to announce that Ms. Nasserie Carew will be joining the Agency in mid-January through a 6-month detail from the U.S. Department of State. Nasserie is currently a Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and will serve as my chief advisor in all areas of communications, media relations and external constituencies.
When the Agency submits its program plan in January, it will include a notification to Congress to establish an umbrella organizational structure titled Management Services, which will combine the Offices of Human Resources, Contracts, Security, Civil Rights, Administration and Workforce Support and Development. It is my belief that unifying these elements will strengthen their direction, provide better coordination among them, and create synergy and cross-program support mechanisms. I have asked Marie Lennon to serve as the Director of Management Services. For operational purposes, this change is effective immediately. Appropriate changes to organization charts will be actualized after the Congressional notification period.
Thank you for all you do every day to support U.S. international media. Wishing you a joyful holiday season and looking forward to a great New Year.
John F. Lansing
Chief Executive Officer and Director
Broadcasting Board of Governors
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Tuesday, December 8, 2015 10:21 AM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Message from BBG CEO and Director John Lansing
Today the Partnership for Public Service (PPS) released their 2015 Best Places to Work rankings. The PPS uses data from the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) to rank 381 agencies and their subcomponents according to a Best Places to Work index score. Agencies and subcomponents are measured on overall employee satisfaction and scored on 10 workplace categories: effective leadership, employee skills–mission match, pay, teamwork, strategic management, innovation, support for diversity, training and development, performance based-awards and advancement, and work–life balance.
Although BBG is ranked 23 of 24 Mid-Size Agencies, we have some small successes and improvements.
· BBG’s participation rate increased to 74% from 69%, and is 24% more than the government average.
· BBG’s Best Place to Work Index increased to 49 from 45.5, a 3.6 point improvement. The government wide improvement was 1.2 points.
· BBG is among 70 Agencies (out of 381) who improved scores in all 10 workplace categories.
Yes, we still have a long way to go. I once again reiterate my commitment to providing an environment where our employees are well-supported in carrying out their duties, and creating a culture that values learning, respect, cooperation and collaboration. A diverse working group from across the agency is well underway on developing recommendations and solutions to address three major areas of concerns:
· Developing and Implementing Effective Internal Communication Practices;
· Defining and Clarifying Agency Mission, Goals, and Leadership Roles, and
· Improving Performance Management and Manager Skillsets.
I look forward to providing you with updates on these initiatives as well as other ongoing efforts.
Additional information on rankings and PPS can be found at http://bestplacestowork.org.
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Friday, December 11, 2015 11:58 AM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: FEVS Working Group Follow-up
As a follow-up to CEO Lansing’s House Announcements on the Federal Employee Survey and the Partnership for Public Service 2015 Best Places to Work rankings, allow me to share additional information.
The Office of Workforce Support and Development (OWSD) recently put together an initial working group to begin to investigate the three biggest issues identified by CEO Lansing:
· Developing and Implementing Effective Internal Communication Practices
· Defining and Clarifying Agency Mission, Goals, and Leadership Roles
· Improving Performance Management and Manager Skillsets
The group has already begun reviewing earlier efforts of the Workplace Engagement Action Teams, updating those earlier recommendations, developing succinct actionable items to be implemented in the coming months, and creating an overall strategic plan to guide future initiatives.
The initial group membership follows:
Barbara Brady – TSI
Karen Dupree – IBB
Brandon Garner – VOA Front Office
Benjamin Jonas – VOA Operations
Bruna Ladeira – VOA Language Services
Susie Nunez – VOA Eurasia Division
Latoyah Saunders – VOA South and Central Asia Division
Douglas Schuette – TSI Telecommunications
David Milligan (Facilitator) – OWSD
We have invited representation from the bargaining units and are also seeking a few more members to represent language services and other broadcast functions. If you are interested in being involved, contact me … .
We welcome your suggestions and inputs to further this effort; please send your thoughts to …