A writer, who wants to remain anonymous, comments on recent personnel appointments made by new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing and their reception by BBG staff. Views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of BBG Watch and its other commentators and contributors.
Dysfunction Keeps Rolling Along
By A Broadcasting Board of Governors Writer
New Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing lost half of the House — and the other half is wavering — when he recently announced the appointments of Jeff Trimble and Marie Lennon to new senior posts. They are agreeable, likable, competent and trustworthy people. But they are the old guard, representatives of the stultifying bureaucracy that has been in place for decades and is causing the agency to rot from within. They are part of the very problem Lansing was presumably hired to solve. Naming them as leaders of a reform effort showed he has already been at least somewhat co-opted by the permanent bureaucracy at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America (VOA) — although, in his defense, he likely had no one else to turn to; as others have noted, the leadership bench is very thin at the Cohen building, possibly by design. Lansing likely looked around and realized he had no choice but to turn to those two. Senior leaders should be judged in part by how well they groom their replacements; in turn, senior leaders should judge those reporting to them how well they groom their replacements. But they rarely do. Lansing likely chose Lennon and Trimble simply because there was no one else. It certainly wasn’t because of their long record at the vanguard of reform movements.
Neither Lennon nor Trimble seem to have ever shown the ability or passion to reform the agency; it’s likely they don’t even agree reforms are needed. Reading their names in Lansing’s announcement produced a lot of head-shaking, head-scratching, laughter and smiles. The bureaucracy must be thinking “This is a guy we can work with.” Lennon and Trimble have been nimble; they’ve actually thrived in the agency’s dysfunctional environment. Why would Lansing or anyone else think they would be motivated to change an environment in which they have done so well? They are back, ever the survivors. And the dysfunction keeps rolling along.
The White House, Congress and the Broadcasting Board of Governors wanted someone who would break the China. Why they thought Lansing was a disruptor is beyond me. He is credible, smooth, committed, mission-focused and has a long record of success in the private sector. But as is clear after seeing him in action, he is no revolutionary and he is no visionary.
As has been noted elsewhere in these pages, Lansing has never worked in government or international news media and has no public diplomacy or foreign policy experience. That can be a plus, but only if a leader understands the trap that awaits him, set by the permanent bureaucracy. He has to establish contacts outside the executive suite, reach out to stakeholders, be willing to remove the deadwood. The announcement of Lennon and Trimble as leaders of a reform effort showed Lansing has not done any of that. Had he done so, BBG Watch, union leaders, even former members of the BBG board would have warned him not to name those two. Lansing may indeed be “dead serious about reforming the agency,” but he is surrounded by people who are dead serious about keeping their six-figure government jobs and will stop at nothing to do so.
Like every senior leader, Lansing pledged to be accessible and said he would hold frequent town halls. But, like every senior leader before him, he quickly reneged and now spends his days surrounded by the same crew that enveloped and co-opted the agency’s leaders before he arrived. Will Lansing follow through on his promise to give employees a seat at the table? So far, he hasn’t.
Perhaps by design, Lansing is no Evelyn Lieberman. The former VOA director, who recently died, was described in these pages as “one of the last VOA directors who had high-level White House access, public service experience, broad knowledge of foreign policy and good political sense and management skills.” Lansing is hobbled because he has no outside power base; he will have only as much power as the BBG Board and the U.S. Congress let him have.
His email pronouncements have been sober, well-written and perfectly reasonable. And the policies and procedures he has put in place will likely be as effective an exercise as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. He has no management depth to reach into, no deep bureaucracy to pull out fresh faces from. He may know he needs to begin preparing a leadership cadre for what is next, but that group won’t be ready to take command for a few years, and Lansing will almost certainly be gone by then.
Lansing likely won’t screw up; he will probably spend three or four relatively uneventful years as the BBG CEO, then float off into a comfortable retirement, never to be heard from again, having done little to change the agency’s direction.