Staring Over The Precipice
Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War Lost
By The Federalist
Thursday morning, May 19, 2016: Quite by surprise to some US Government broadcasting stakeholders, it was learned that late in the evening of Wednesday, May 18, the US House of Representatives on a voice vote passed a National Defense Authorization Act amendment that reshapes the landscape for the entities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The complete text of the amendment can be read here:
This amendment has already been covered by BBG Watch. Here, we provide some further commentary and analysis.
Why This Is Important and Why You Should Care
Messaging has become a major concern of almost crisis proportions in various quarters of the US Government, including the State Department. Numerous state and non-state actors have been successful in spreading a decidedly anti-American message along with misinformation and disinformation intending to discredit the United States and turn up the volume when it comes to anti-American sentiment among global publics.
This amendment would create a “Global Engagement Center,” which would coordinate a messaging and counter-messaging effort across a number of US Government agencies including the BBG.
The amendment would also dramatically restructure the BBG to align its assets with this effort. It would allow the BBG to dissolve and concentrate powerful decision-making in the hands of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) a position presently occupied by John Lansing, a former private sector broadcasting executive. The amendment would direct Mr. Lansing and/or his successor to restructure the existing grantee broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Most importantly, it would dissolve the Voice of America (VOA) as a Federal agency and recreate it as a grantee organization.
The VOA aspect of the plan is the most outwardly noticeable change.
In recent memory, there have been two legislative efforts to reform the BBG and the VOA. These have been represented in bipartisan congressional bills H.R. 2323 and H.R. 4490. H.R. 4490 easily cleared the House and H.R. 2323 got unanimous approval in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. These reform bills, however, were not introduced in the Senate. Two senators, Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), proposed instead S. 2692 – Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 which essentially says that the BBG is irrelevant for the countering of violent extremism effort.
The NDAA amendment is significantly different from H.R. 4490, H.R. 2323 or S. 2692. This amendment is less about reform and much more about reorganization. It is the kind of reorganization that has both immediate and long-term consequences affecting both the VOA mission and its employees. In terms of the mission, it would align the agency to the messaging effort. In the case of VOA employees, it would de-Federalize the workforce and remove their career status and impact on their benefits.
In effect, a judgment has been made: the agency has passed the point where reform may have been a reasonable option. Now the focus is on reshaping and recasting it.
A No-Win Situation
There has been no shortage of frustration with the BBG and VOA on the part of Members of Congress and congressional staffers. Regularly and repeatedly, the agency:
- has dismissed the need for key portions of legislation to enact reform.
- claims that it needs only one Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to run a multi-tiered organization, having components with separate and distinct missions and a long, long list of systemic problems.
In short, the BBG revels in conducting business as usual when a large share of official Washington shares in a view that the agency is:
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs:
- “This Broken Agency is Losing the Info War to ISIS & Putin,” House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Chairman Ed Royce, February 23, 2016.
This has been and continues to be an accurate assessment of this agency, particularly in the 21st century. It has lost its way and in the process has lost its audiences, its credibility and its integrity. If you recognize these results, you can understand why “messaging” has become an important issue for the US Government. An effective VOA would obviate the need for a messaging initiative as proposed in the NDAA amendment.
The level of frustration also reflects the fact that the BBG has long denied the need for internal reforms. It is quite content with doing business as usual at the hands of a calcified, self-serving bureaucracy which cares little about the agency’s mission or its employees and places a high priority on preserving its self-interests. This bureaucracy has demonstrated that it will go to extraordinary steps to defend its turf and attack any political appointee or Member of Congress who would attempt to break the stranglehold these bureaucrats have on preventing the agency from moving forward and dealing with pressing issues impacting on the agency’s performance and mission.
This amendment has been characterized by some commentators as a “nuclear option.” It is not subtle nor is it incremental. It is a direct effort to end business as usual at the hands of a bureaucracy that values self-interest over the agency’s mission and its accountability to the Congress and the American taxpayer. These bureaucrats have made the “nuclear option” an earned and deserved outcome.
If you are an employee of the VOA, you should be very concerned. You are being squeezed between two forces: the one to reorganize the agency and the one to conduct business as usual and continue to degrade the agency’s effectiveness.
As a practical matter, the agency has no audience in any significant and impactful way under the business-as-usual paradigm that exists today. Lack of strategic vision has resulted in a situation in which it would take many decades and many millions if not billions of dollars to reconstruct its audience base.
The sad and unfortunate truth is that a reform is simply not worth the effort or the expense. It is likely the agency will continue to be overtaken by events and the actions of state and non-state actors who continue to fuel anti-American sentiment with the result that the agency will continue to falter and remain below the horizon with global publics.
In so many words, the VOA has run out of time.
And there is only one other “nuclear option” out there: to close the VOA entirely and allow the grantee broadcasters to carry the freight. In some respects, the NDAA would make that prospect easier by way of the organization plan it proposes.
Some agency employees have suggested and/or expect that the NDAA amendment will die in the Congress and not be acted upon.
This is a seriously flawed outlook.
The key ingredient here is this:
The agency is on the radar – and for a host of wrong reasons. And it is persistently staying on the radar almost as an act of defiance.
As long as these conditions continue to exist, VOA is on the short list to be one of those rare creatures in the Federal government to be rendered gone.
As noted, the legislation places enormous power in the CEO to not only manage but also to reorganize the entirety of US Government international media.
We’ve said it before and will say it again: there is no single individual who can do this and expect it to be a smooth or successful process. John Lansing may believe he is that person. However, he has not seen the agency at its worst yet. And the worst comes when the entities fight for survival. It will not be a pretty picture. The bureaucracy will stall and delay any such attempt if it threatens it and the self-interest of those within it.
The Biggest of Big-Time Losers
Should this kind of reorganization come to pass, the biggest of big-time losers will be VOA.
Stripped of its Federal status, for all practical purposes the VOA would lose the substance if not the fact of so-called “flagship” status among the grantees. It will be reduced to just another grantee among several other competing grantees.
It is rather unlikely that reorganization will result in maintaining same language services across entities. With the mission redefined, particularly along the lines of countering anti-US propaganda, it might result in a substantial reduction of language services under the VOA banner. VOA would be reduced to a catch-all for language services not already existent in other grantees.
Same As It Ever Was
A problematic issue is the amendment really doesn’t directly address any of the underlying management problems that have become embedded inside the VOA.
Management problems are plenty. They have earned the agency the status as one of the worst agencies in the Federal government.
But there are problems on the employee side as well, some of the most notable ones coming from the VOA newsroom.
These problems got the attention of Members of Congress with an employee-written editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Back Off Congress.” It went downhill from there, culminating in a crash landing of sorts when some among the newsroom staff presented a demand to agency officials that they renounce any connection to the messaging issue. These employees crossed the line into matters of policy decided on a level high above their pay grade.
The amendment makes that connection emphatically and is a clear signal from the Congress (and quite possibly the administration as well) that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.
We don’t know who these employees think they are. But the reality is that you don’t antagonize the powers that be who have a whole lot of control over whether your agency and your jobs exist or not.
And There’s More
Let’s also consider that we are in the national election cycle. Someone new will be in the White House as president in January 2017.
As the likely Democratic nominee for president, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labeled the agency, “practically defunct.” She did it on three separate occasions: in testimony before Congress, in an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations and in her autobiography.
As the likely Republican nominee for president, businessman Donald Trump has had nothing to say about the BBG/VOA. However, with the kind of record of failure the agency has amassed, one would suspect that Mr. Trump would be amenable to jettisoning the agency or finding a way to fire the bureaucrats responsible for the problem.
The long-term prospects for this agency do not look good. Employees will stick it out to the bitter end. They have to. But it is an end that is looming closer, not further away.
If you are an employee of this agency and are being told you have “reform-minded” management on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building, you are being led to believe a false narrative. These individuals closed the window of opportunity on reform a long time ago. It is no longer an option.
One of our sources has provided us with a copy of a June 2, 2016 memo issued by John Lansing, the agency’s chief executive officer, regarding the NDAA/Thornberry amendment. We were astounded by this comment by Lansing:
“To be clear, the House amendment as written would NOT require that VOA be de-federalized or abolished, or require the loss of any jobs or positions.”
John Lansing also said: “It is worth stating that there is a long journey from the passage of an amendment to it becoming law. The Senate has yet to taken up debate on their version of the NDAA and it is not clear what will be included. If a Senate bill passes, it is exceedingly likely that the two chambers will need to meet to resolve differences between their bills, and certain portions could fall out as a result.”
In relevant part, the amendment states the following:
“(b) Voice of America. –
“(1) Status as a Federal entity. – The Chief Executive Officer is authorized to establish an independent grantee organization, as a private, non-profit organization, to carry out all broadcasting and related programs currently performed by the Voice of America. The Chief Executive Officer may make and supervise grants or cooperative agreements to such grantee, including under terms and conditions and in any manner authorized under section 305(a). Such grantee shall not be considered a Federal agency or instrumentality and shall adhere to the same standards of professionalism and accountability required of all Board broadcasters and grantees…” (Emphasis added)
In effect, Mr. Lansing is making an interpretation of the amendment language: that, if the amendment is passed by the Congress unchanged from its current form and the legislation is signed by the President, he or any future CEO has the authority to reorganize the VOA at his or her discretion, but he or she does not have to exercise this authority and the Congress would not mind at all if the reorganization and de-federalization of the Voice of America do not happen.
But is this interpretation consistent with congressional intent? Almost certainly, it is not. John Lansing was apparently surprised by this amendment, but he wants VOA federal employees to believe that it may not pass in its current form. Perhaps not, but what if it does? The future of hundreds of federal employees may be at stake. This calls for clear communication and leadership, not vague assurances of what may or may not happen.
To leave things as they are is to support business-as-usual which means an agency that has institutionalized failure and for which there is no reasonable expectation or belief that it can turn things around and do so dramatically, in a timely fashion and without the continued waste of taxpayer funding.
Writing in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) blog, former VOA director David Jackson notes,
“Blowing up the Board and converting the 74-year-old VOA into a non-governmental entity, the kind of drastic reform one congressional aide…reportedly described as ‘the nuclear option,’ is now on the table.”
That’s how we see it. It is a clear and unmistakable message to agency officials that time and circumstances are not on the agency’s side.
Clearly, the ability of Mr. Lansing to understand this legislation and its consequences are seriously in doubt.
Mr. Lansing appears to have put himself in the mindset that reorganization is not going to happen, at least for as long as he is the chief executive officer – keeping in mind that he isn’t likely to be chief executive officer forever.
With that mindset, should (as is likely) the agency continue to be ineffective and incapable of carrying out its mission, the next step from the Congress will be to “order” or “direct” that the agency be reorganized and eliminate any real or imagined ambiguity.
From our perspective, the “nuclear option” is indeed on the table and likely to occur sooner rather than later – or as Mr. Lansing and the bureaucracy of this failed agency would hope not at all.
In turn, that means the agency will be unprepared for what will follow.
And from what we know of this agency, it cannot handle the smallest of changes let alone a change on the magnitude of a major reorganization.
Perhaps, Mr. Lansing knows (or should know) that the level of competency required to carry out this kind of reorganization does not exist within the agency.
At the end of the day, Mr. Lansing’s memo has the effect of representing yet another gesture of defiance on the part of the BBG bureaucracy.