BBG Watch Commentary
In an opinion article published Friday (April 25, 2014) on FoxNews.com, “America must not retreat from Russia’s information war” Republican Senator Roger Wicker from Mississippi and Republican Representative Aaron Schock from Illinois question the overall international media outreach strategy of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency overseen by a bipartisan board. They are among numerous critics of the BBG, which was once described by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) as lacking both transparency and accountability. He called the agency “the most worthless organization” in the federal bureaucracy.
Before leaving her State Department post, Hillary Clinton, at that time still an ex officio BBG member, called the agency “defunct.” A former government minister in Eastern Europe wrote recently: [The bureaucracy in charge of U.S. international media outreach] “is still doing nothing to boost America’s broadcasting to Russia and Ukraine – through any channel, via any country. They are total losers.” Rimantas Pleikys’s offer of using a medium wave transmitter in Lithuania, a U.S. ally, to broadcast radio programs to Russia and Ukraine has been ignored by the BBG bureaucracy. Ariel Cohen, a highly respected American political expert specializing in Russian and Eurasian affairs, said last week that Voice of America, together with the rest of U.S. international broadcasting, needs to be reformed because “it keeps hobbling along like a three-legged cat.”
BBG’s new chairman, Jeff Shell, and BBG members, both new and those who have served several years, are pushing for changing the media outreach strategy and reforming the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) federal bureaucracy, but while there have been some positive changes, little actual progress has been made so far. Shell, who is a Democratic appointee, and Matt Armstrong, a Republican appointee, may still be hoping that the IBB can be reformed with the help of a future agency CEO whom the board is trying to hire. BBG Governor Michael Meehan, a Democratic appointee, who has more experience on the board and is more familiar with the failings of the IBB bureaucracy, has been pushing for more radical and immediate reforms.
At the last BBG open meeting earlier this month, Meehan offered a resolution that would have moved broadcasting to Iran (PNN – Persian News Network) from the mismanaged Voice of America to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a semiprivate BBG grantee. Meehan’s resolution did not pass. Shell and other BBG members decided to give IBB officials two more months to develop a new plan for Iran, but they also said that if the plan is not acceptable to the board, they will vote for a more radical solution along the lines of Meehan’s proposal.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the most experienced foreign policy and Middle East expert on the current BBG board, expressed his desire to see a radical transformation of U.S. media outreach to Iran, as did another Middle East expert Governor Kenneth Weinstein. It was obvious that the board is not going to wait too long before taking steps to reform VOA’s PNN and probably the rest of VOA management as well.
Chairman Shell and some of the newer BBG members may still not fully realize that the IBB bureaucracy with its current status and control of 34% of the BBG’s budget cannot be reformed unless it is radically reduced and transformed. The board put in a new interim three-person management team, which is incomparably better than the previous one. But due to limited options and candidates, the board kept some of the failed managers. Some of those responsible for strategic planning and numerous management failures in the past were given new important assignments. This greatly undermines employees’ faith in the renewed board’s ability to provide two most critical elements for the agency’s survival: leadership and accountability, a source told BBG Watch.
The new three-person IBB management team, while it was praised at the last BBG meeting for its hard work, does not have any substantive foreign policy and journalistic experience or any political clout in Washington. They are mostly technocrats, albeit more capable ones compared to some of the other IBB executives who were in charge earlier. But because of their lack of historical knowledge of the agency, little foreign policy experience, and no political connections within the administration, the new team failed to organize a quick and effective surge response to the crisis in Ukraine of the type that VOA was able to launch in the past when it was still part of the now defunct United States Information Agency (USIA) and could count of USIA political clout and support during such emergencies.
The current public diplomacy section within the State Department lacks political clout, resources or ability to offer substantial support to BBG. No secretary of state has ever attended a formal BBG board meeting even though they are ex officio members of the BBG.
New IBB managers may have been also stymied in their efforts to respond to the Ukraine crisis by spectacularly ineffective Voice of America executives who are ultimately responsible for planning and managing VOA programs.
The old IBB management team also did not have any political clout in Washington or any political judgement, but in addition the old team developed and unquestionably supported a failed strategy and adopted personnel policies that have made the BBG one of the worst-managed federal agencies with one of the worst employee morale ratings. At least the new team is viewed more positively by employees and trying to make some improvements. It would be unreasonable to expect them to provide the kind of leadership and political influence in Washington that the agency badly needs.
Sources told BBG Watch that Chairman Shell wants major personnel changes and management reforms, but as a new chairman he does not want to make serious mistakes by moving too quickly without proper background knowledge of the agency, which a part-time chairman cannot acquire in a few months. He wants to choose the right kind of CEO to make these decisions.
Unfortunately, the crisis in Ukraine has shown that the agency badly needs to launch an immediate and effective response, especially by VOA and IBB. RFE/RL has done much better, even though it also lacks a permanent CEO after the recent departure of Kevin Klose.
In our opinion, the Ukraine crisis should have prompted the BBG board to move much faster with major personnel and management reforms, perhaps appointing a temporary agency CEO with broad powers. However, Chairman Shell and newer members many have also learned from their colleagues with more experience on the board that when the board had tried earlier to get a temporary CEO, IBB officials effectively sabotaged attempts to hire an experienced and politically well connected candidate.
Fortunately, Chairman Shell, Governor Armstrong and other new BBG members are also beginning to realize that IBB officials in charge of strategic planning have failed the agency in a spectacular way, sources told BBG Watch. They also seem to realize that the agency lacks both leadership and accountability at both IBB and VOA.
What they may still not yet realize fully is that the IBB cannot be used as a vehicle for reforms because it is itself the problem. It is in fact an enormous bureaucracy responsible for paralyzing the agency and making it largely defunct. What BBG Governors do realize, however, is that more key VOA and IBB executives need to be replaced, sources told BBG Watch. At the same time some have been hesitant to do it in the middle of the crisis in Ukraine without having replacements ready to take over. Replacing federal government executives or getting them to change is not an easy and quick process.
Governor Armstrong may have already learned this lesson. At an earlier BBG meeting, he strongly criticized VOA’s handling of breaking news and was widely praised by VOA journalists. VOA executives made a few minor changes, which resulted in some news coverage improvements usually during Washington business hours. All structural problems, however, continue and have not been addressed by executives who seem incapable of even understanding these problems, VOA journalists told BBG Watch. They also say that these executives are incapable of changing strategy and providing leadership. VOA recently posted a map showing Crimea as being part of Russia. Earlier failures included posting a fake interview with a major Russian opposition figure and giving the Kremlin propaganda machine ammunition by mistranslating a book comment by a former U.S. Secretary of Defense.
These mishaps can be traced to budget allocations, management practices such as hiring inexperienced contractors, and personnel decisions at the senior VOA and IBB levels. Ultimately, they are a result of the agency’s strategic plan developed by IBB officials. In their FoxNews.com article, Senator Wicker and Rep. Schock focus on the weaknesses of BBG’s strategic planning.
SENATOR RIGER WICKER (R-MS) and Rep. AARON SCHOCK (R-IL) “It is alarming, therefore, that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has decided to prioritize initiatives in Africa and Asia in its FY2015 budget at the expense of news services to Eastern Europe and Iraq. Surely the BBG – which recently condemned the Kremlin’s decision to end all radio broadcasting by U.S. international media in Russia – recognizes the signal that these closures send to strongmen like Putin, who seek to limit free speech.”
“It stands to reason that Putin relishes the opportunity to expand Russia’s influence in Southeast Europe as independent news coverage from Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty recedes.”
“It is our hope that the BBG will reverse the decision to end news programming to the Balkans and Iraq. Cutting important communication to areas of the world where America’s interests are threatened weakens our position and that of our democratic allies. Any action to close these broadcast services should not take effect until the proper congressional oversight can adequately assess the consequences.”
Both IBB and VOA are dominated by executives who favor a business world approach of expanding audiences the easy way rather than pursuing difficult to reach audiences in strategic countries with mission-oriented programming. This IBB and VOA strategy, which is completely inconsistent with BBG’s public funding and public mission, has led to the production of dozens of VOA reports on the British royal family, multiple reports on Canadian pop star Justin Bieber and a zombie video for Pakistan with an Uncle Sam blood-thirsty character attacking a Pakistani, while VOA and IBB officials failed to provide VOA Ukrainian and Russian services with adequate extra staff and resources to regularly update their news websites and social media pages.
Most of these senior officials, who have a habit of denying any knowledge of these mishaps and refuse to accept responsibility, are still in their positions. Outside critics have urged Shell and other BBG members to replace them as a fist step to reforming the agency and improving employee morale, but this could leave VOA and IBB without any senior managers with the exception of the new three-person IBB management team.
BBG Governor Matt Armstrong announced at the last BBG meeting that he is working with the new team on reforming the Language Service Review process and on other reforms designed to provide the BBG with better strategic planning.
He is right on the mark in his focus on the Language Service Review since IBB executives have used this process to cut critical programs and programming positions in response to budget cuts while increasing the number of IBB positions in the last seven fiscal years by 37%.
A list of recent wars, uprisings, terrorist attacks and major international crises shows that IBB officials have been incapable of making right strategic predictions. Shortly before each one of these major incidents, strategic planners and executives actually proposed or implemented broadcasting cuts to the affected countries and regions.
The Jasmine Revolution in China, 2011
Victory of pro-Putin candidate for President of Ukraine, 2010
Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia, 2008
Uprising in Tibet, 2008
Terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, 2008
Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan, 2005
Most of these “strategic” programming cuts that turned out to be strategic mistakes got BBG boards in trouble with Congress. Governor Armstrong obviously wants to avoid such bad decisions in the future, but it remains to be seen whether he can get his proposed reforms to work within the IBB bureaucracy. One of the problems with the IBB executive corps is that unlike USIA, which had highly talented Foreign Service Officers who were rotated, most IBB officials have no foreign policy or public diplomacy experience and do not speak foreign languages. Some got their jobs because of their U.S. commercial media experience and links with former BBG chairmen or former BBG members. Once they got into their federal government positions, they have stayed in them for years and cannot be easily removed. They can, however, be transferred to positions with less responsibility and authority, which has been done in some cases.
BBG GOVERNOR MATT ARMSTRONG: Rob* and myself were working on updating the strategy. It’s really important to consider that we’re integrating and coordinating the inputs as well, so that includes advising and participating in the Language Service Review process. So, for example, it’s not just green light / red light on something but trajectories to better inform the agency, better inform the networks, so that we may better inform the Congress, the White House, the State Department, etc., as well as to get inputs from them. So that we may also have greater awareness and heads-up.
Also, [working on] the strategies looking at how we utilize the skills and expertise within our networks to again better utilize and provide awareness. So this will go into also how the networks work together because this is not a one language, one region, one service type of environment anymore. The Ukraine is an example of that. We have plenty of other examples where there going to be multiple languages, multiple regions, multiple audiences that are in one particular area. So it’s a dynamic place that we need to update and refresh the way we approach it.”
[*Robert Bole, new Director of Global Strategy at IBB — member of the three-person IBB management team — not to be confused with Bruce Sherman, who is Director of the Office of Strategy and Development and who has overseen development of the three 5-year strategic plans, including the most recent 2012-2016, and is their principal author, according to his official BBG bio.]
Governor Armstrong ended his comments by praising the interim IBB management team for their hard work and responsiveness. Chairman Shell and other BBG members joined in expressing their appreciation to André Mendes, Robert Bole, and Suzie Carroll.
Governor Armstrong should be applauded for his efforts to reform IBB and VOA and especially for his proposal to reform the Language Service Review process and providing “trajectories” rather than take-it-or-leave-it recommendations from IBB bureaucracy that were often spectacularly wrong and got the BBG board in trouble with Congress, human rights and media freedom NGO and other constituencies.
What Governor Armstrong, Chairman Shell and perhaps some of the other newer BBG members may not yet fully realize is that IBB in its current size and set-up cannot be reformed or be a source of reforms and therefore cannot be put in charge of harmonizing or coordinating the work of various BBG entities. A competent and experienced CEO who knows how the agency works and understands different missions of different entities might be able to do it as long as there is no large bureaucracy with its own expansionist agenda.
While Governor Armstrong refers to them as “networks,” they are in fact separate entities with very different congressional mandates. Armstrong seems concerned with a silos effect of BBG entities operating in isolation from others. There is some merit to this concern, especially with regard to VOA. But the most powerful entity that operates in complete isolation from U.S. foreign policy concerns and oversight is in fact the IBB. Meanwhile, IBB strategic planners and executives have continuously tried to put VOA and BBG grantees under their control, which makes this problem even worse. Unless there is sophistication and flexibility attached to the harmonization plan and journalists are allowed to make their own programming choices, putting IBB bureaucrats without any specialized experience or connections with programming in positions of telling RFE/RL or Radio Free Asia (RFA) how to structure their programs will produce even greater crises and greater embarrassments for the BBG than before.
The so called “duplication argument” alluded to in Governor Armstrong’s remarks has been a favorite IBB ploy to get more power and more money to exercise bureaucratic control. Unfortunately, IBB officials managed to convince some that such a costly “duplication” exists. Existence of some duplication in news reporting may be true to some degree, but it is largely due to IBB’s own push for marketing and program placement harmonization according to their preferred business model and because of reluctance of senior VOA officials to follow the VOA Charter. This attempt at centralization to save money while amassing more funding and actually greatly increasing the number of IBB positions has eventually won the agency its “defunct” label and in fact has led to enormous waste of money and resources now being tied up in the IBB bureaucracy. IBB in its current form will never be able to save any money for U.S. taxpayers, but there are enormous savings and efficiencies to be gained from shrinking and reforming IBB.
Separate U.S. broadcasting missions to the same region are not at all a new phenomenon. They had existed throughout the Cold War and produced very positive results. The difference between then an now is that RFE/RL was given more resources than VOA because it was more fiscally efficient and more effective as a surrogate broadcaster than VOA was as a broadcaster to the same region operating under its congressional Charter. But both were effective in breaking the information blockade and advancing U.S. national interests in their own way. They supplemented each other but preserved their separate identities, which was critical for their success. The end result was an efficient way of delivering both surrogate news and presenting U.S. policies and opinions. Mission merger under IBB would be the ultimate disaster, as IBB is not and will never be like USIA and cannot function as a policy coordinator. It has no foreign policy experience and no political connections of any kind.
BBG Governors Michael Meehan and Susan McCue, who have greater knowledge of IBB, appear to have somewhat better appreciation than the newer members of the incompetence and dangers represented by the old IBB bureaucracy and a greater appreciation of the effectiveness of surrogate media outreach in certain countries and regions, but not necessarily in others. There is clearly room for both VOA and surrogate media — a mix that has to be carefully managed and adjusted, not by IBB bureaucracy, but the BBG board itself. While some members of Congress and congressional have bought into the phony “duplication” argument pushed by IBB executives, many more understand the value of surrogate broadcasting and other forms of media outreach supported by U.S. taxpayers.
What all BBG members seem to agree upon is the need for a new strategy. Both Chairman Shell and Governor Meehan alluded to the IBB staff recommendation of eliminating BBG news programs to the Balkans which caused Senator Wicker and Rep. Schock to publish their article. But the same IBB executives were also responsible for even greater real and potential strategic disasters, such as proposing to eliminate VOA radio and television transmissions to China, ending VOA radio transmissions to Tibet, and the earlier decision to end all VOA radio and satellite television broadcasts to Russia.
Governor Armstrong should be applauded for seeking ways to get input on such important strategic decisions from the Congress, the White House, the State Department, and outside experts and constituents. This reform effort, however, may not be enough and may fall short if a large IBB bureaucracy is retained and put in charge of making strategic decisions.
Chairman Shell, Governor Armstrong, Governor Meehan and other BBG members should be applauded for noticing the flawed IBB-run Language Program Review process and for promising a reversal of the IBB proposal to end BBG media outreach to the Balkans, but their biggest challenge will be to deal with the IBB bureaucracy itself and choosing the right CEO.
The following exchange between Governor Meehan and Chairman Shell may answer some of the questions posed by Senator Wicker and Rep. Schock, but in terms of turning the BBG around and providing new leadership, direction and accountability, change still seems elusive. Unless there is a radical and comprehensive solution for the IBB problem, the agency in charge of U.S. international media outreach cannot be reformed.
BBG GOVERNOR MICHAEL MEEHAN “The other moment that I just didn’t want to let pass at the open meeting — inside the Ukraine activity, which we didn’t do q&a because we are pressed for time — but the Balkan situation is one that we, the Board, are acutely aware of the changing circumstances there since the 2012 decisions that were made to wind it down. So, just to let folks know that there is active consideration of how we, the Board, approach the Balkans and the Congress has language in there and working towards that. So I wanted to make clear that we state in public that the Board is aware of the changing circumstances and is looking for solutions.”
BBG CHAIRMAN JEFF SHELL: “Yea, we wish to provide some funding there further so we’re working with our constituents to try to get to a solution there.”