Major reform of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy to be proposed in Congress

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch has learned that a draft bill originating in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) as Chairman and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) as Ranking Member, would, if passed by Congress and signed by the President, radically reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an agency currently in charge of U.S. international media outreach. The United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994 (22 U.S.C. 6201 et seq.; title III of Public Law 103–236) would be repealed under this draft bill if it were to become law. The draft bill appears to be a bipartisan effort to address problems in how the part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors manages U.S. international media outreach through its large, expanding and highly dysfunctional International Broadcasting (IBB) bureaucracy. Lawmakers also appear to want to address serious management issues at the Voice of America (VOA). They also want to improve U.S. public diplomacy. Sources told BBG Watch that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was also involved in the drafting of the bill in a completely bipartisan effort.

To be known as he the “United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014,” the draft bill calls for the creation of the United States International Communications Agency within the executive branch of Government as an independent establishment. It also calls for creating the Advisory Board of the United States International Communications Agency. According to the proposed legislation, current BBG members would serve out their terms of office on the new board, which in contrast to the current board would have mostly advisory functions.

The draft bill also calls for having a Chief Executive Officer of the United States International Communications Agency, appointed for a five-year term and renewable at the Board’s discretion. The CEO would exercise broad executive powers.

The draft bill also calls for the creation of the Consolidated Grantee Organization, for the non-federal grantees of the BBG: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). RFE/RL, RFA, and MBN would be consolidated and reconstituted under a single organizational structure and management framework. The draft bill expresses “the sense of Congress that RFE/RL, Incorporated, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network share a common mission with distinct geographic foci, and should therefore be merged into a single organization, with distinct marketing brands to provide the news and related programming and content in countries where free media are not established.”

The Consolidated Grantee Organization would have its own board and its own CEO. The Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the United States International Communications Agency Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the Consolidated Grantee Organization would be required to meet at least quarterly to coordinate strategy funding allocations, program delivery and other plans.

Similar coordinating meetings are envisioned by the draft bill between the Chief Executive Officer of the United States International Communications Agency and the State Department’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the Chief Executive Officer of the Consolidated Grantee Organization.

The Voice of America would be placed within the the United States International Communications Agency.

The draft bill includes the text of the VOA Charter, but also adds other requirements to VOA’s mission:

“(1) Producing accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and related programming and content of a non-military nature that promotes or accords with the domestic and international interests of the United States.

(2) Producing news and related programming and content that accurately represents the diversity of thoughts and institutions of the United States as a whole.

(3) Presenting the law and policies of the United States clearly and effectively.

(4) Promoting the civil and responsible exchange of information and differences of opinion regarding policies, issues, and current events.

(5) Making all of its produced news and related programming and content available to the Consolidated Grantee Organization for use and distribution.

(6) Producing or otherwise allowing editorials, commentary, and programming that present the official views of the United States Government and its officials, especially the Secretary of State.

(7) Maximizing foreign national information access through both the use of existing broadcasting tools and resources and the development and dissemination of circumvention technology.

(8) Providing training and technical support for independent indigenous media and journalist enterprises in order to facilitate or enhance independent media environments and outlets abroad.

(9) Reaching identified foreign audiences in languages that best convey the intent of United States foreign policy.

(10) Being capable of providing a broadcasting surge capacity under circumstances where overseas disasters, crises, or other events require increased or heightened international public diplomacy engagement.”

The draft bill also makes the following points about VOA:

“The Voice of America’s success over more than seven decades has created valuable brand identity and international recognition that justifies the maintenance of the Voice of America;

the Voice of America’s public diplomacy mission remains essential to broader United States Government efforts to communicate with foreign populations; and

despite its tremendous historical success, the Voice of America would benefit substantially from a recalibration of Federal international broadcasting agencies and resources, which would provide the Voice of America with greater mission focus and flexibility in the deployment of news, programming, and content.”

The draft bill also envisions the Advisory Board of the United States International Communications Agency conducting periodic, unclassified consultations with the Department of State, the United States Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, for the purpose of coordination in support of the United States public diplomacy.

The draft bill calls for the following duties and standards for The Consolidated Grantee Organization:

“(1) provide accurate, objective, and comprehensive news, analysis, and discussion of domestic and regional issues in other parts of the world that are considered crucial to successful democratic and free-market transformations;

(2) strengthen civil societies by projecting democratic values and promoting equality and the rights of the individual; and

(3) assist in the recruitment and training of journalists to enhance media professionalism and independence, and develop partnerships with local media outlets.

STANDARDS AND PRINCIPLES OF CONSOLIDATED GRANTEE. The broadcasting of the consolidated grantee organization shall—

(1) be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States;

(2) be consistent with the international telecommunications policies and treaty obligations of the United States;

(3) not duplicate the activities of private United States broadcasters;

(4) not duplicate the activities of government-supported broadcasting entities of other democratic countries;

(5) be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism;

(6) be based on reliable information about its potential audience;

(7) be designed so as to effectively reach a significant audience; and

(8) prioritize programming to populations in countries without independent indigenous media outlets.”

Under the draft bill, “the Chairs and Ranking Members of the appropriate congressional committees would, in consultation with respected United States-based organizations charged with the promotion of democracy abroad, identify candidates for the first board of the consolidated grantee, direct the appointment of board members, and select the first chair of the board and the first president of the consolidated grantee.”

The draft bill has lists important goals of U.S. international media outreach and problems with the current Broadcasting Board of Governors and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) setup that makes it difficult or impossible to achieve these goals:

“Congress finds and declares the following:

(1) United States international broadcasting exists to advance the United States’ interests and values by presenting accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and information, which is the foundation for democratic governance, to closed societies.

(2) The United States agrees with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, and that “this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

(3) United States Government officials are on record expressing serious concern about the current inability of the existing United States international broadcasting framework to fulfill its stated mission and engage in public diplomacy in the parts of the world where the free flow of information is needed the most.

(4) The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which was an effort that was intended by Congress to oversee the United States’ international broadcasting framework and public diplomacy strategy in the wake of the Cold War, has, because of structural and managerial issues, had limited success to date of both coordinating the various components of the international broadcasting framework and managing the day-to-day operations of the Federal components of the international broadcasting framework.

(5) The tenure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors has specifically demonstrated the difficulty of establishing a board of part-time managers to run a Federal agency with responsibilities for the daily operation of a global communications effort.

(6) In addition, severe attendance and quorum problems have plagued the tenure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors has, at times during its 17-year history, been functionally paralyzed by not having an adequate number of governors to establish the quorum needed to run the agency.

(7) In addition to the periodic inability to achieve a quorum, the board of governors has only achieved the full slate of all nine governors for seven of its 17 years of existence, which speaks to difficulties both confirming and retaining governors under the current structure.

(8) Prior and current governors have expressed frustration that the inability to retain a full or functioning board of governors is due partly to the full-time demands of the part-time board position, but also due partly to the inability of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to exert its authority over the current bureaucratic structures within the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Voice of America.

(9) Both the Department of State’s Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have issued reports which outline a severely dysfunctional organizational structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

(10) The Inspector General of the Department of State concluded in its January 2013 report that dysfunction stems from “a flawed legislative structure and acute internal dissension”.

(11) The Inspector General of the Department of State also found that the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ structure of nine part-time members “cannot effectively supervise all United States Government-supported, civilian international broadcasting”, and its involvement in day-to-day operations has impeded normal management functions.

(12) The Government Accountability Office report determined that there was significant overlap between the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ languages services, which contributed to wasted resources and lost opportunities to use those resources to broadcast in other languages.

(13) According to the Office of the Inspector General, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has improperly used so-called purchase order vehicles to procure the services of broadcasting and technical personnel for the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Voice of America, instead of procuring those services through more appropriate personal service contracts, which is the Department of State’s practice.

(14) In addition to the inappropriate use of purchase order vehicles to procure personnel services, the Broadcasting Board of Governors also has a disproportionately large volume of high-paid employees, both within the Senior Executive Service and the General Service, who are not relevant to the agency’s broader broadcasting and technical mission.

(15) The Broadcasting Board of Governors needs to be empowered to restructure its internal components and personnel arrangements in order to ensure that a greater amount of taxpayer dollars goes to the substantive, broadcasting, and information-related elements of the agency’s mission.

(16) Information also exists raising concerns about the safety and sufficiency of the Cohen Building, which was constructed in 1940 and appears wholly inadequate for a twenty-first-century global communications effort.

(17) In addition to questions about the adequacy of the Cohen Building’s broadcasting and telecommunications infrastructure, there are also questions about whether the Cohen Building meets current Federal occupational health and safety requirements.

(18) The lack of a coherent and well defined mission of the Voice of America has led to programming that duplicates the efforts of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, RFE/RL, Incorporated, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and this duplication undermines the effectiveness of United States international broadcasting.

(19) The annual survey conducted by the “Partnership for Public Service” consistently ranks the Broadcasting Board of Governors at or near the bottom of all Federal agencies in terms of “overall best places to work” and “the extent to which employees feel their skills and talents are used effectively.”. The consistency of these low scores point to structural, cultural, and functional problems at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

(20) The Federal and non-Federal organizations that comprise the United States international broadcasting framework have different, yet compatible, missions that necessitate coordination at all levels of management.

(21) The Broadcasting Board of Governors has an overabundance of senior civil service positions, defined here as full-time employees encumbering GS-14 and GS-15 positions on the General Service pay scale.

(22) United States international broadcasting should seek to leverage public- private partnerships where possible to expand outreach capacity, and such partnerships should not be used to fundraise or for commercial use.

(23) The combination of issues described in this section justifies congressional action at this time to improve international broadcasting operations, strengthen the United States’ public diplomacy efforts, enhance the grantee surrogate broadcasting effort, restore focus to news, programming, and content, and maximize the value of Federal and non-Federal resources that are dedicated to public diplomacy and international broadcasting.”

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