BBG Watch Commentary
A copy of a memo that Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member Michael Meehan sent to other BBG members was obtained by BBG Watch.
BBG views of H.R. 4490
June 18, 2014
To my fellow BBG Governors:
I am writing in dissent from the prevailing BBG position regarding HR 4490 pending in the House of Representatives.
Overview: The United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490) would abolish the current management structure Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) by creating a new federal agency structure, the United States International Communications Agency (USICA). It would consolidate the non-federal grantees currently under BBG authority (Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Middle Eastern Broadcasting Networks) into a private-sector entity, the Freedom News Network (FNN).
Over the past year with you all and in my four years serving on the BBG I have delved deeply in to the issues inherent in US International Broadcasting. I have served on the BBG in various capacities including the Chair and/or co-chair of the BBG Strategy and Budget Committee for three years, the BBG Internet Freedom Committee for three years, the BBG Communications Committee, the BBG SW Committee, the BBG Advisory Committee and the new BBG IAC Committee. I have also served as the Chairman of the Radio Free Asia Board of Directors and as the Chairman of the Middle East Broadcasting Network Board of Directors.
In 2011 the board passed unanimously a strategic plan that called for a full time CEO of USIB, that would replace the “head of agency” structure that we collectively serve today in a part time capacity. I am pleased that all of you continued to support a full time CEO position that will allow making our roles a strategic advisory board v. a day to day management role. In 2012 we got White House support and now movement in the Congress.
While I agree with my colleagues that the agency has undertaken numerous efforts at structural reform including the creation of an empowered Chief Executive Officer, I believe the Reform Act proposed lays out a clear path towards efficiency and increased effectiveness. Section 2 of HR 4490 lists findings that are consistent with my own experience and understanding. While I share the frustrations of my many current and former fellow board members in making even incremental progress within this construct, I also remain pessimistic at the anticipated speed of success of our internal efforts.
At a time when other countries, including Russia and China, are competing with the United States in a battle of values and ideas, U.S. international broadcasting has struggled to respond accordingly. Since the day I joined the Broadcasting Board of Governors four years ago, it has been underfunded. Funding has only been cut further each year since then and more on the way.
This chronic underfunding is further hamstrung by the organization’s inability to forge a cohesive mission that incorporates and takes advantage of the success and future potential savings of the private corporate surrogate grantees.
Many attempts have been made in the last 4 years to improve various areas of the VOA and especially to focus the VOA on fulfilling the first part of the VOA Charter.
These attempts have clearly not been successful. Over the time I’ve been here, the federal bureaucracy has grown exponentially. Although it was believed in good faith that this would make the organization work more effectively, the result has been a bloated bureaucracy that seemingly impedes every attempt at progress and stymies the work of the private grantees.
The bill proposes to disaggregate the U.S. international broadcasting services along mission lines. The federal broadcaster (Voice of America) and other federal offices will continue to function under the current Presidentially appointed Board with revised authorities.
This federal agency would be rebranded as the United States International Communications Agency (USICA). The Freedom News Network (FNN) will operate under a new private board modeled after the National Endowment for Democracy. The proposal to divide the BBG as articulated in H.R. 4490 is not new and has always been controversial–but in my view it is the most logical path forward.
As things currently stand, the federal bureaucracy and the federal staff’s view of the grantees methodically work to make sure the grantees are not as nimble and pro-active regarding the events in their regions. The VOA has long de-emphasized their unique and valuable role in the VOA Charter in favor of other parts that are being done by the private grantees. Only in Africa, where there is little or no overlap, should VOA play a surrogate role at this time. The grantees perform their duties pursuant to clear Congressional Mandate. It follows that clear congressional mandate would focus the VOA on work under-performed while essential to the national security of the United States. In my view, the bill is saying everyone does solid balanced and accurate journalism–FNN to do local/regional news and information and the VOA to do the world/US focused news and information.
Contrary to my colleagues’ concern that the proposed division may create competition between two entities over limited federal funds; I believe the new structure will diminish the existing competition which has hampered timely decision-making and driven overall costs up in the course of conducting business.
In this letter I will be consistent with my colleagues and break out HR4490 concerns by subject matter. I am told that financial implications have been conveyed to the Congressional Budget Office on CBO’s request last Friday, June 13th.
H.R. 4490 does not include an authorization of such funding but understands that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the total cost of implementation will be below current authorized/appropriated spending levels seemingly consistent with both Pay-Go and Cut-Go policies.
I agree that we should always be concerned about potential unforeseen cost increases.
H.R. 4490 also includes a provision requiring the USICA to provide 1% of its annual appropriation to fund the Office of the Inspector General’s work concerning this agency. At current operating levels, this would be more than $7 million. I wonder if this is excessive.
However, given the many issues uncovered by the OIG and others in the IBB contracts, procurement and visa application processes, I imagine the Hill is anticipating a thorough look at the other departments within the IBB/BBG/VOA
Program content sharing: In years past, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized the BBG for duplication of content between broadcasting services. Although the GAO did note that the surrogate work of the grantees were unique even among international broadcasting nations. The BBG has made many attempts to centralize content so that it may be more easily shared.
The issue as I understand it is less about a lack of cooperation, but rather the relevance of sister-entity content to other markets and in prioritizing valuable space in schedules that have been cut back significantly over the years to accommodate budget constraints. Further the vast majority of content is produced in native languages. Having the ability to responsibly translate even a select group of relevant programming entails significant translation costs and editorial supervision.
The amount proposed in H.R. 4490 to the Freedom News Network (FNN) is $29 million higher than the total FY 2014 enacted level for the current grantees. The BBG has been told that this increased funding level is to accommodate costs associated with consolidating the three independent private broadcasters into the FNN.
Rent/lease of additional space:
The legislation requires FNN headquarters and senior staff to be headquartered in one location.
The existing grantees are in four locations and both RFE/RL and RFA maintain significant office space in the Washington-Metro area. The legislation chooses to defer those decisions to the not-yet-named private corporate board of the FNN. Consolidations of the private broadcasters must be done in a manner that is fiscally responsible and analytical of the costs and benefits of current contracts/leasing arrangements.
Unlike my colleagues I do not see the need for acquiring costly new facilities. The Grantees have demonstrated that they make decisions based on cost-effectiveness and as I understand it, HR 4490’s authors are more concerned about business efficacy than arbitrary mandates.
In the current arrangement, the private broadcasters procure transmission services directly from the BBG and the BBG assumes costs for transmitting most of the signals that deliver programs to audiences abroad. Under H.R. 4490, FNN will be permitted to purchase these same transmission services from the private sector if it chooses to do so; the argument being that the FNN as a private corporation may find cheaper options on the open market and choose to procure these services on the private market.
The BBG is concerned that allowing FNN to purchase services from other providers will increase costs to the federal vendor as it assumes a greater percentage of the fixed costs. If costs were to increase, the federal agency may be forced to shutter some federally owned and operated facilities. While the BBG staff might see this as a problem, I do not. I have been told numerous times by these very same BBG staff that if we were allowed to go into the market place and negotiate, that we would be able to recognize savings and efficiencies.
Moreover, several times in my tenure I have witnessed the smallest of broadcast requests ignored to the detriment of our mission-based work.
Broadcasting standards and missions
HR 4490 includes two sections that highlight the need for the news and information of the Voice of America to remain credible, comprehensive, and objective. But there is no mention of the so-called “firewall”, a term that does not exist in statute but often cited to insulate journalists from the political influences of the Executive and Legislative branches of government. The absence of a reference to the “firewall” in this legislation has been disconcerting to journalists within the VOA in so much as its absence has been read to negate the two sections that highlight the journalistic standards of VOA.
Although H.R. 4490 carries much of the VOA’s charter language – it makes a change to charter’s third provision including the words “and promotes” to the language so that it now reads, “is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.”
Many VOA employees speculate that the addition of this language is a signal that their journalistic independence and credibility has been lost. Nevertheless, the union that represents the VOA (the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812) has strongly endorsed H.R. 4490 and has publicly stated that they do not share this concern. More explicit language preserving the journalistic integrity of the VOA should be included.
The proposed change to the VOA charter has led some to believe that VOA will be turned into a propaganda tool of the USG. This perspective is not universal and has been hotly debated since the days of the United States Information Agency (USIA).
Recently, this debate has spilled over into popular media. My colleagues are concerned that changes to the VOA charter could spur current affiliates of the VOA to stop carrying VOA programming.
I would note that we have no evidence to support or refute this speculation. In my experience, affiliates by and large are using the VOA English teaching type programs and more traditional VOA Charter feature programs. [Note to other members of the BBG: VOA’s affiliate programming has overwhelmingly been traditional VOA Charter content, English-language teaching and special English content –especially by affiliates in closed countries.] This seems repetitive.
HR 4490 mandates a five-year freeze on hiring new employees at the GS-14 and GS-15 level. There is a waiver to this freeze so the agency can continue to hire for positions that are considered critical to the operations of the agency or to hire for skill sets not sufficiently represented in the current workforce. The hiring freeze may prevent some current employees from promotion in the near term but it is unclear how many individuals this would impact.
USICA v. FNN
The division between USICA and FNN is based on the belief that the two have sufficiently different organizational missions, a perspective that continues to be intensely debated. The legislation takes the position that USICA is fundamentally a tool of US public diplomacy and therefore responsible for “telling America’s story” and at the very least debunking false press about America that exists worldwide.
The VOA Charter powerfully provides for the explaining of the policies, politics and culture of the United States. In contrast, the legislation states that FNN will provide uncensored local and regional news to people in societies where a free media cannot exist. My colleagues do not agree that this division is necessary or helpful, preferring instead to have a single organization provide a “full-service” of news and information as the Agency has been moving towards through harmonization of the content. However the “full service” approach has never struck me as consistent with the current law and report language. Rather the report language clearly shows that it was the intent of Congress that the BBG (inclusive of the IBB staff who have taken on Board responsibilities) not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the grantee corporations.
In the past, critics of the BBG have noted that VOA has developed programming that is more similar to that of the private broadcasters, ignoring the mandate to present the policies of the United States –especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. The proposed reforms would require FNN to expand its coverage areas and VOA would contract its programming accordingly. The legislation mandates the creation of a plan to address this transition. Nevertheless, the BBG believes that USICA and FNN will compete for finite resources to the detriment of both organizations.
The bill limits both USICA and FNN to serving a set of “eligible” countries/regions based on media freedom and democratic development. The legislation includes a national security waiver to these eligibility requirements. As a private corporation, the legislation allows FNN to make independent programming decisions but funds may be withheld if FNN deviates from its mission.
H.R. 4490 gives the USICA CEO a number of “non-delegable” authorities that are currently delegable under the IBA. My colleagues believe that the CEO should be able to delegate operational authorities, such as procurement functions and approval of the use of funds. I could not disagree more. It is clear that the IBB leadership believes that the broadcasting entities work for them. This belief is completely reversed from its original purpose and function which was to act in support of the content creators
Senior management compensation
I do not pretend to understand either the senior management compensation implications of the Bill nor the rationale of my colleagues’ concerns. I do however understand that the drafters’ intent is to control the compensation and growth of the senior management personnel. The only time during my tenure that the board been consulted prior to giving performance bonuses or pay increases in whatever form they are given was when we had not quorum and we blocked those bonuses.
H.R. 4490 takes effect 180 days after enactment and mandates the USICA provide an implementation plan 180 days after enactment –providing a total of 6 months to develop a plan for consolidating the federal offices of the USICA.
Some within the BBG believe this is not sufficient time. Their assessment is based upon the belief that BBG systems and processes will need to be modified, including existing interfaces with outside entities.
In light of this, my colleagues have requested additional time consideration be given to address:
• Personnel action and bargaining actions required for position eliminations and reorganization
• Contracting actions required for severance, modification, or solicitation of contracts
• Required authorities to establish and operate an International Cooperative Administrative Support Service (ICASS) agreement
• Establishment of required Department of Treasury reporting attributes, such as Treasury Fund Symbols, Agency Location Codes, and Employer Identification Number(s).
Do we need an opinion on this?
H.R. 4490 prohibits USICA from making a grant to FNN until the latter has met the requirements in Section 110(a): that FNN is incorporated; a Board, Chair, and CEO have been selected; bylaws established; an FNN headquarters has been designated; a three-year plan for consolidation is submitted and plans for content sharing and programming implementation are developed. My colleagues believe this makes the timeline for consolidation and operation of the grantees unclear.
According to the private grantees, operational consolidation into the FNN will be easily completed in the 3-year time frame provided by the legislation.
H.R. 4490 does not include language indicating that USICA assumes all of the employees, property, etc. of the BBG. Such “savings clauses” ordinarily are provided in legislation when agencies are abolished/established.
The term “broadcasting technology” as applied to the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) system agreements mentioned in Section 110 of H.R. 4490 is not as specifically defined as are the facilities and broadcasting infrastructure indicated in Section 221. The bill puts the onus upon both USICA and FNN to find the most cost effective way to provide technical services. This seems reasonable to me.
Finally, independent of the content of the Findings section, it is unusual for an agency’s principal authorizing bill (or “organic statute”) to begin with an exhaustive list of criticisms.
My colleagues recommended that the Findings be limited to reasons for creating the new structure, and that the existing structure’s failings be enumerated to the extent possible in report language. Without an opinion either way, I do note that there is nothing in the findings that is inconsistent with my experience while serving on the Board. I will also note that many people including members of the Interim Management Team do recognize that while the Agency has made forceful effort to remediate its multiple problem areas, the Agency is far from a condition of effective and efficient operations.
I’ll conclude by saying the Reform Act is obviously drafted with great care and extensive research on the history, the intent and the current conditions in US International Broadcasting. It is my understanding that many if not all of my current and former colleagues on the board had one or more meetings collectively and/or individually with the chief legislative sponsors and their staffs, who drafted this legislative fix. Over the course of my tenure so far it has become obvious that legislative intervention would be needed for true reform. US International broadcasting does an enormous amount of good work throughout the world supporting freedom and democracy through providing important and otherwise inaccessible news, information and discourse to hundreds of millions of people living in repressive societies.
Based upon my 27 years of public service with 23 in the legislative branch and 4 years here in the executive branch, I believe this board is on the cusp to make meaningful fixes in this vital enterprise.
We all as members of this independent agency are on the verge of making lasting improvements to important legacy institutions in a modern media environment. In addition, I am happy to talk with you about any questions or comments in a public or private setting about my dissenting opinion.
Sincerely and respectfully submitted,
Michael P. Meehan
Broadcasting Board of Governors, 2010-present