BBG Watch Guest Commentary
Good CEO, some good ideas, bad overall strategy
By Ted Lipien
John Lansing, new CEO and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), has outlined his vision for the agency in a BBG blog article, “Positioning Ourselves For Maximum Impact.”
My overall impression of the article is highly positive, but it does not address several key issues, especially the need for structural reform of the agency in charge of U.S. international media outreach. Unfortunately, Mr. Lansing is on the record elsewhere opposing the bipartisan H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act, although he wisely does not lobby against it in this article.
John Lansing is without any doubt an excellent manager, but he has no prior government service experience. I’m afraid that he is mistaken that his reforms alone can right the dysfunctional federal agency in the long run. They in fact may make it more dysfunctional later after he leaves office. An even more empowered future agency bureaucracy can easily reassert its full control under a less able and less well-meaning CEO. I saw it happen many times before.
Even if Mr. Lansing manages to replace every one of the failed longtime BBG executives with much more accomplished individuals of his own choice — an almost impossible task considering that the agency has many different functions and government executives enjoy strong job protections — there are no institutional guarantees that after a period of time future government management teams will not continue to mismanage the agency the way it has been until now for many years. The likelihood that they will run the agency for their own benefit is far too great knowing how government bureaucracies operate.
As two experts on propaganda and disinformation, Charlie Winter and Jordan Bach-Lombardo, pointed out in their article for The Atlantic, “Why ISIS Propaganda Works: And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way“:
CHARLIE WINTER AND JORDAN BACH-LOMBARDO: “Government-directed initiatives are fighting an unwinnable battle. They are too centralized, too rigorously managed, and too reactive.”
There is nothing wrong with collaboration between the five BBG networks and exchanging ideas, but protecting their brand identities and independence is absolutely essential. The BBG bureaucracy has seriously undermined their special identity with their audiences and their effectiveness through forced collaboration, homogenization, and impractical and wasteful ideas characteristic of government-directed initiatives. In commenting on U.S. government’s failed effort to counter ISIL propaganda, experts have warned that “overly bureaucratic approach persistently gets in the way of flexibility and dynamism, both of which are required for success.”
I have no doubt that Mr. Lansing is trying hard to reform the agency and has taken some important steps in that direction. But he was put in a position of defending the centralized status quo, which has not worked and will not work for media outreach, especially in the Internet age.
The Obama Administration and the current BBG Board are completely mistaken in their desire to establish central control over all U.S. international media and public diplomacy outreach. U.S. information effort functioned best when it was de-centralized during the Cold War. In fact, the de-centralized institutional arrangement proposed in H.R. 2323 was exactly the model which was a major factor in helping the U.S. win the Cold War. There was coordination, but it was done behind the scenes. The Voice of America, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty had different missions and used different methods to achieve their mission objectives. Short-term and long-term U.S. policy goals are often in conflict with each other. More centralization means opting for the failed status quo that fails to understand this important truth. I don’t judge John Lansing and BBG Chairman Jeff Shell too harshly because they don’t have much experience with government operations, but I am 100 percent down on the entrenched BBG bureaucracy.
While an overall winning strategy may be lacking, there are, however, many positive elements in John Lansing’s message which may help the agency if Congress succeeds in passing structural reforms. John Lansing deserves credit for choosing and highlighting these objectives, some strategic and some tactical.
1. Increasing impact in places were press freedom and the freedom of expression are restricted, such as Russia, Cuba, Iran, China and globally where ISIL and its mission of violent extremism persists.
2. Aggressively moving to digital, video, mobile and social media networks while not abandoning non-digital platforms, such as radio.
3. Engaging young audiences who are impacted by Russian aggression and disinformation, or by media campaigns of groups such as ISIL.
4. Continued commitment to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and its mission of promoting freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming.
5. Measuring audience impact to help advance BBG’s mission to “inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
The best thing that the Congress can do is to pass H.R. 2323 in some form so that structural institutional reforms are carried out and the future of the Broadcasting Board of Governors will not hang on the abilities of a single CEO. I strongly believe that both Mr. Lansing and BBG Chairman Jeff Shell are certainly much better than what this agency has seen in many years, but I wish they would drop their opposition to H.R. 2323. At the very least, they should propose a good alternative for the Congress to consider rather than persisting in defending the status quo on the assumption that one exceptional and empowered CEO can fix all the problems. That is not what I would call institutional reform which is still so badly needed for U.S. international media outreach.
Ted Lipien, was acting associate director of the Voice of America and is one of the co-founders, volunteers and supporter of BBG Watch. He directed highly successful VOA radio broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity trade union’s struggle for democracy, launched VOA TV broadcasts to Russia and Ukraine, placed Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) programs on stations in Eurasia, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and was editor of VOA’s multimedia and multilingual online journal “New Europe Review” which had Vaclav Havel on its international advisory board.
BBG Press Release
FEBRUARY 12, 2016
This is a very important time for U.S. international media. The global media landscape is evolving and many news organizations are reshaping the way they produce and deliver news. BBG is no different. We are carefully weighing pressing national security concerns, government-wide spending constraints and the need to fine-tune our operations to deliver more impact.
That’s why I’m pleased that the President’s FY2017 Budget Request included $777.8 million for the BBG. The budget, an increase of more than 3.5% over our FY2016 request, is evidence of President Obama’s confidence in us and the work we do. This increase will enable us to meet our challenges and achieve our objectives.
As you can see from our executive summary, this request reflects U.S. foreign policy priorities and increases our impact in places were press freedom and the freedom of expression are restricted, such as Russia, Cuba, Iran, China and globally where ISIL and its mission of violent extremism persists.
In addition to targeting these key spheres for our activities, the budget will position the BBG to better engage young and influential media consumers by aggressively moving to digital, video, mobile and social media networks. Specifically, our FY17 request prioritizes engaging young audiences who are impacted by Russian aggression and disinformation, or by media campaigns of groups such as ISIL. We also plan to expand the digital component of MBN’s successful Raise Your Voice campaign that has engaged Iraqi audiences on issues that have allowed ISIL to attract young fighters. We’ve requested $2.5 million to expand this campaign to Egypt, Central Asia and the Balkans.
Let me stress that although the BBG networks are shifting dramatically to digital media, we are not abandoning our other platforms. We continue to add radio programs such as VOA’s daily Amharic-language show to Ethiopia, and we plan to invest $4.55 million in the expansion of shortwave broadcast infrastructure in Kuwait, from where low-cost shortwave broadcasts reach multiple regions, including Africa. We’ve also proposed an additional $2 million to expand our global distribution capability.
I must also emphasize our continued commitment to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and its mission of promoting freedom and democracy by providing the people of Cuba with objective news and information programming. The Obama administration is requesting in its budget proposal the authority to reorganize OCB into a non-federal entity. But to be clear, OCB’s mission will not be touched, and the functions of Radio and TV Martí will remain the same. This authority request is part of the FY17 Budget Request, and it does not automatically result in a change. Indeed, the request still needs to follow the normal legislative process, including intense legislative scrutiny, before being considered.
I’m especially proud that the FY17 Budget Request is the result of unprecedented collaboration between the five BBG networks, under the leadership of the International Coordinating Council (ICC). We will continue to enhance this strategic cooperation, both now and in the future, in support of our unified vision. Because it is together that we will have the greatest impact.
Measuring audience impact is complicated. For a non-commercial media organization, we don’t measure impact in terms of revenue but in how our content helps advance our mission to “inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Earlier this month, I asked key representatives from all of the BBG’s networks to participate in an Impact Summit, where they shared their ideas on impact and how best to measure it in their broadcast regions. After two full days of intense and productive deliberations, we have come up with an assessment framework derived directly from the constituent elements of our mission.
Our research is used to assess our impact, study the media environments in which we operate and deliver audience feedback. The FY17 Budget Request includes an additional $2 million to enhance our research efforts. And on the heels of the Impact Summit, I’m glad we can support our research goals.
In the end, our FY17 Budget Request will allow our phenomenal staff to continue to deliver global and domestic news in support of freedom and democracy. That’s the only way we know how to do it.