According to Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Interim CEO and Director André Mendes, the U.S. taxpayer-funded media organization is doing extremely well. However, not everyone agrees. Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), described the BBG in April 2015 as being “far behind” in managing U.S. response to President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and the Committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Eliot Engel said in May 2015 that “It’s time to breathe new life into American international broadcasting by modernizing and streamlining the BBG.” Rep. Eliot also said that “Modern technologies have provided new avenues for disseminating lies and distortions to massive audiences.” “Unfortunately, America’s ability to respond effectively hasn’t kept pace,” Rep. Engel added. On May 14, Rep. Royce and Rep. Engel introduced the bipartisan H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015. According to the House Foreign Affairs Committee press release, “The legislation improves the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters, which are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).” The bill was unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and awaits further legislative action in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
André Mendes, who in his messages to staff and in media interviews paints a completely different picture of the agency and touts his own and the BBG’s claimed successes, managed to overcome and emerged unscathed from several major setbacks in his current government career.
During his tenure as CIO/CTO, Director, Technology, Services and Innovation,Broadcasting Board of Governors, International Broadcasting Bureau, December 2009-January 2014, the Iranian Cyber Army managed to launch a successful hacking attack on the Voice of America (VOA) main news website in February 2011, replacing it for several hours with and anti-U.S. message addressed to the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The February 21, 2011 message from the Iranian Cyber Army posted on the Voice of America homepage following a successful hacking attack said:
“We have proven
that we can”
“Mrs. Clinton Do you want to hear the voice of oppressed
nations from heart of USA ?” [sic]
“Islamic world doesn’t believe USA trickery .” [sic]
“We call on you to stop interfering in Islamic countries .” [sic]
According to the 2014 Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit, the Broadcasting Board of Governors Information Security Program showed “a significant deficiency.”
OIG: “Collectively, the information security control weaknesses we identified in this audit represent a significant deficiency to enterprise-wide security, as defined by OMB Memorandum M-14-04.3 We identified control weaknesses in 9 of the 11 information security program areas that considerably impacted BBG’s information security program. The most significant information security deficiencies are related to the risk management framework, continuous monitoring program, [Redacted] (b) (5) ￼ contingency plans, configuration management, and the incident response and reporting program. In addition, information security program areas that need improvement include Plans of Action and Milestones (POA&M), remote access, identity and access management, and security training. Since FY 2010, the weak (and in some cases lack of) security controls adversely affected the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information and information systems. As an example, according to a BBG official, the weak security controls resulted in the hacking of BBG Web sites in 2011.”
The 2011 Iranian Cyber Army hacking of the Voice of America website did not interrupt Mr. Mendes’ advancement at the BBG. In January 2014 he was named by the BBG board Director, Global Operations and in March 2015 Interim CEO and Director, Broadcasting Board of Governors. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) officials responsible for the latest massive hack of sensitive personal data of U.S. federal employees and retirees could perhaps learn about damage control and salesmanship from BBG officials.
Whether anybody believes messages of success, however, delivered in the face of overwhelming evidence of VOA’s dismal performance in audience engagement on social media, is debatable. Even the State Department Facebook page has more “Likes” (1,100,155) than the VOA News main global English language Facebook page (1,044,185, as of June 26, 2015). Individual BBC and Russia’s RT news reports can get thousands of “Likes” to barely a few for similar VOA reports. RT, BBC and even Deutsche Welle (DW) beat VOA in audience engagement stats by wide margins in many key foreign languages, such as Iranian. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), one of BBG’s surrogate, non-federal media outlets, shows, however, better social media performance in foreign languages than VOA, the BBG’s federal flagship broadcaster.
In his June 24th Newsweek article, “The West Should Be Turning the Screws on Putin,” former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty president Jeffrey Gedmin who is now senior fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, wrote “How woefully and embarrassingly inadequate it is that VOA and RFE/RL now have funding to produce a new Russian language television show for a meager thirty minutes a day.” Much of BBG’s $742 million budget is tied up in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and VOA’s bureaucratic superstructure.
Gedmin: “Third, let’s develop information and media strategies worth their name. It’s astonishing how Congress and the Obama administration have dithered over the reform of U.S. international broadcasting. There’s a bill co-sponsored by Ed Royce (R-California) and Eliot Engel (D-New York) that deserves speedy passage in the House and the Senate and approval by the president. This will give the Voice of America (VOA) and a newly consolidated Freedom News Network—merging Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Network—the chance to operate more efficiently and effectively.”
READ MORE: The West Should Be Turning the Screws on Putin, Jeffrey Gedmin, Newsweek, June 24, 2015.
While Rep. Royce, Rep. Engel and Mr. Gedmin criticize and urge reforms, André Mendes offers a positive view as an alternative to such criticism . In his Forbes interview, Mr. Mendes was somewhat vague on social media performance, but he still managed to give it a positive spin.
Mendes: “Social media has also put somewhat of an additional onus on us to really play an influential role in some of the most critical situations of today. Whether it be the distribution of propaganda from the Putin regime in the periphery of the Russian Federation and in the former Soviet Union territories, to some of the recruiting activities being undertaken very aggressively by ISIS/ISIL in the social media environments, including inside of the United States and Western Europe. In both geographies, we see attempts at radicalization and the constant propaganda associated with that organization. So it is both a new opportunity, but also a new tremendous challenge in terms of some of the dissemination of the most virulent messages out there, utilizing exactly the same transmission methodology.”
Persistent and still continuing underperformance by VOA on social media and news reporting failures may have caught the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During her testimony on January 23, 2013 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting she described the BBG as “practically defunct.” It is not known whether she was also upset that BBG officials allowed the VOA website to be hacked by the Iranians who mocked her and the United States. As Secretary of State, she was at the time an ex officio member of the BBG board.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: “And finally, we need to do a better job conveying a counter-narrative to the extremist Jihadist narrative. You know, I’ve said this to this Committee before — a lot of new members on it — you know, we have abdicated the broadcasting arena. You know, yes, we have private stations: CNN, Fox, NBC, all of that. They are out there, they convey information, but we’re not doing what we did during the Cold War.”
“Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back into it. We have the best values. We have the best narrative.”
“Most people in the world just want to have a good decent life that is supported by a good decent job and raise their families and we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void. We have to get in there and compete and we can do it successfully.”
Mr. Mendes’ interview with Forbes gives a completely different picture of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to that presented by the former Secretary of State and other critics.
Mr. Mendes also showed his considerable salesmanship abilities in explaining in a recent email to staff why the failure to achieve 75% goal of BBG employee participation in the 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) may not be as bad as it looks. For many years, FEVS surveys have shown the BBG to have some of the lowest employee satisfaction and morale ratings in the Federal Government. Mr. Mendes pointed out that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) participation rate went up from 33% to 79%. OCB manages Radio and TV Marti. Perhaps the BBG board under Chairman Jeff Shell will be rewarded with a better employee morale rating for responding to legal decisions and outside pressure and rehiring most of the illegally RIFed Radio and TV Marti journalists.
According to sources, Mr. Mendes deserves some credit for speeding up the rehiring process, although not all RIFed employees who want to return to work have been rehired. The 2015 FEVS employee morale results are expected to be released in September. There is a general agreement even among critics that the interim management team headed by Mr. Mendes is better than the previous one, but according to critics that may not be saying much and has not resulted in any major management changes or improvements in media performance.
Mendes: “It’s an enormous transformation. To such a degree that we even adopted as part of our mission statements “to engage and connect”, which in the past really didn’t have as much meaning as it does today. By virtue of that bi-directionality not only are we able to establish dialogues at a much deeper level than just a one-way radio transmission, but we’re also able to a certain degree transform some of our audience into citizen journalists in certain cases providing us with an absolutely compelling content, whether it be audio, textual or even video from some of the most complicated situations in the world.”
READ MORE: Andre Mendes Path From CIO To CEO Of The Broadcasting Board Of Governors, Peter High, Forbes, June 22, 1915
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Thursday, June 25, 2015 2:07 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: UPDATE – FEVS Participation rates
You are no doubt curious as to whether or not we were able to reach the 75% participation rate we were aiming for and that would result in all staff getting 2 hours of administrative leave.
Well, the answer is a little complicated. Read on…
In the unadjusted numbers, the BBG participation rates ended up as follows:
BBG – 72% (71.8%)
VOA – 72% (71.7%)
IBB – 77% (76.7%)
OCB – 79% (78.8%)
So at first glance, it appears pretty clear that we did not make that 75% goal and that nobody gets the said 2 hours of leave….but, and this is where it gets a little complicated, these numbers are unadjusted. OPM will now reconcile the numbers with the Agency’s actual population during the survey, versus the population that was used to send the survey invitations out. That will properly account for folks that have left the Agency, were not eligible, etc.
Last year, the difference between the initial number (65.8%) and the final number (68.7%) was 2.9%.
If the same gap was true this year, then 71.8% + 2.9% = 74.7% which would round out nicely to 75%! (Mathematically, 74.5% will suffice!)
So the answer is….not yet, maybe and stand-by for an update when OPM finalizes the analysis of the numbers.
But meanwhile, let’s rejoice in the following facts:
· While the overall government unadjusted participation was flat at 46%, the BBG’s participation rate went up by 9.1% (from 65.8% to 71.8%)
· OCB’s participation rate went up by 33% to an Agency leading 79% with the Edward R. Murrow Greenville, NC station leading the way at 100%
· The BBG’s participation rate is actually a whopping 61% higher than the government at large.
Now some might downplay these numbers as irrelevant and even mock this missive but, personally, I believe that they indicate a level of employee engagement that will lead to further improvements around the Agency.
While I sincerely hope our satisfaction rankings within the government go up substantially in September, I am already thankful to all of you that chose to participate and drove our rate to what might prove to be an Agency record.
To those of you who chose not to fill out your survey, I trust that the continued work that will be done around here until the survey comes about again, will convince you to join your colleagues next year as we rally behind the Agency and bring about the changes you want and the changes that will ensure our increased relevance in the world.
With warmest regards and wishes for a favorable adjustment in OPM’s final numbers,
Andre V. Mendes
Interim CEO & Director
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Monday, June 8, 2015 4:05 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Let’s get to 75% Participation – Last week of Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey
As we enter the last week of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, I encourage you to make your voice heard.
Help us get to 75% participation rate by taking the survey and everyone will get – TWO HOURS OF ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE!!!
Over the last couple of years, your outstanding journalistic work throughout the world has made a definite impression.
For Fiscal Year 2015, the BBG’s budget was almost $25M more than the original
President’s request. For Fiscal Year 2016, the Administration’s initial request is $30 Million more than last year.
We have also been busy reforming the Agency internally. Initiatives are coming online at a furious pace as we continue to push for increased agility in the 21st Century.
In response to your survey feedback, some recent internal organizational efforts include:
• A new policy that allows for up to 8 days of telework per pay period where applicable.
• A renewed monetary rewards program with 50 Quality Step Increases, 80 Gold Medals and another $700K in other cash incentives during FY15.
• A new 5-Tier Performance Management System to assist with addressing low performance and recognizing outstanding performance.
• A new Learning Management System to enable us all to manage our training and career paths.
• Access for every employee to an outstanding online
• Up and coming Automated Time and Attendance System (October 2015).
Everywhere you look you can see our Agency on the move. We need your help in continuing this transformation.
For too long, this Agency has been characterized as one of the lowest rated Agencies in the Government. It is time that we change that narrative.
With your help, we can drive our survey participation rate to record numbers. And if you believe that things are indeed getting better, let your feedback reflect that.
Deadline is Friday, June 12. Let’s make 75% participation happen!
With warmest regards,
André V. Mendes
Interim CEO & Director