BBG Watch Commentary
The new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Jeff Shell deserves credit for seeing to the departure of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo. This is indeed a good start. Various sources told BBG Watch that Shell did not want Lobo to stay.
But while Richard Lobo did not do anything to save the agency, he also was not the one who made it “dysfunctional” and “defunct,” to use the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He simply allowed the crisis to continue by keeping the IBB executive staff. These managers together with some of the former BBG members are responsible for the mess inherited by Shell and the new Board.
In the view of The Federalist, the new Board may be facing the same danger from IBB executives as the previous ones. These entrenched bureaucrats are already hard at work of making the new Board fail by infecting members with their deceptive ideas hiding behind meaningless terminology. The Federalist warns Chairman Shell against making the mistake of listening to this group of bureaucrats who have destroyed not only the agency but also the reputation of former BBG chairs and former BBG boards.
If new BBG members make the mistake of keeping these executives in decision making positions, they will perform the same destructive operation on them. They are the only constant factor in the defunct agency’s recent history. Allowing them to continue their destructive work could be the biggest mistake that the new Chairman and the new Board can make.
As The Federalist points out, the agency is in a desperate situation that calls for radical solutions from the new Chairman and the new Board. Small steps are not going to cut it. Only a clear and dramatic break with the past IBB leadership can save the agency and motivate employees to join the Board in supporting and carrying out a reform agenda that still needs to be presented.
International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunctional and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost: Memo To The Board #2
We have an audio file and detailed notes from the proceedings.
Fumble! Overall BBG Grade: F
Fumble #1: Not Speaking Plainly: D-
We heard a number of things in this meeting that we really don’t like. These comments by BBG members color the entire proceeding. The color isn’t sky blue.
Someone must think the agency is part of the Department of the Navy, now attempting to use nautical terminology like “all hands on deck.” These meetings are certainly not “all hands,” for an agency that operates 24/7, in various locations around the country and around the world. The Cohen Building auditorium isn’t packed to capacity for the sessions. Someone has to be doing the work of the agency. It’s a foolish application of the term.
“Deep dive” may be more appropriate, not for nautical reasons, but for the fact that this agency’s fortunes have been, are and appear likely to continue to be in a deep dive: being crushed by the pressure that comes from a lack of management competency.
Too often, these meetings in the Cohen Building auditorium take on an atmosphere of a theater for the absurd.
Fumble #2: “Baby Steps:” BBG: F-
Chairman Jeffrey Shell made note of employee participation in the 2013 Federal Employee Survey noting that it was “way up” and was a “tiny little baby step…”
Chairman Shell and most of the reconstituted BBG haven’t been on the job all that long. With that in mind:
Participation in the 2013 survey may be up from previous years, but the overall results appear to be the same: the agency is likely to rank at/or near the bottom among other Federal agencies it is compared to. That’s nothing to cheer about. What that indicates is that the problems are systemic, deep-seated and agency-wide, particularly within the Voice of America (VOA). In the past, agency officials have tried to dismiss low turnout and response as the work of a minority of “disgruntled” employees.
And this survey is likely to support our contention regarding the scope of the problems.
As to the term, “baby step:”
Agency officials have been using this term since these surveys began. Perhaps someone on the Third Floor suggested it to BBG members or used it in a meeting and board members latched onto it.
In either case, guess what?
You just got set up.
An agency that is dysfunctional and defunct does not get rehabilitated in anything remotely resembling a timely fashion with a “baby step.”
For agency employees and contractors, the term is insulting, demeaning, belittling.
The only usefulness the term has is an indication of the strategy of senior agency officials in dealing with systemic problems they have created: delayed accountability.
To be clear: accountability delayed is accountability denied.
In this regard, the pace of dealing with any and all agency problems – is like watching the glaciers recede in the last Ice Age.
And that is exactly the way they want it.
If we were face-to-face with Chairman Shell, we would observe the following:
“Consider this scenario: You are a senior manager at NBC Universal. Revenue is down and stock prices are falling (agency budget reduced by sequestration), audience numbers are stagnant, shareholders have no confidence in the company’s leadership (the agency employee survey), and last but not least:
You just lost Maria Bartiromo (CNBC) to FOX!
If someone stood up in a meeting of top company executives and suggested that the approach to all these problems was to take a ‘baby step,’ approach to any one of these issues, you would probably question the person’s mental state.”
And also keep in mind that a current senior agency official once told a group of employees, “You are responsible for your own morale.”
That is the environment inside the Cohen Building.
Fumble #3: Technology: BBG: F
Chairman Shell opined in the meeting that “everybody around the world has a smartphone.”
No, everyone doesn’t have a smartphone. That is something of a large overstatement.
Everyone doesn’t have the infrastructure necessary to support a smartphone.
Smartphones, reliant upon in-country providers, can be interdicted rather easily and content blocked.
Everyone doesn’t have the per capita income to buy and support a smartphone. For example, generally accepted figures put people at/or below the poverty level at 2-BILLION worldwide.
Once again, we face the IBB ploy: treat the rest of the world as a suburb of DC. The agency’s approach to technology is that of a “Black Friday” (day after the American holiday of Thanksgiving and the start of the buying season leading up to Christmas) frenzy with people lined up for hours at their local Best Buy store.
Currently, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is running a public service announcement that can be heard on Washington, DC radio station WTOP. The message: radio and television outpace all other media combined for news and information in the United States. We don’t know the NAB survey methods, but if the statement is correct, that says something about the United States, the most technology saturated place on the globe. More than likely, the NAB claim would be even more the case if applied other parts of the world.
Members of the board note that in each budget cycle the agency gets “tripped up” by the issue of shortwave.
We already know that the hucksters for the International Broadcasting Bureau’s (IBB) “strategic plan” want to kill radio, particularly shortwave radio, but ALL radio, by any means available, as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, there are people outside the Cohen Building who understand that radio – shortwave and otherwise – represents the core broadcast foundation for this agency.
When all else fails (as is often the case with the agency’s application of other technologies), radio broadcasts save the day for US national and strategic interests.
In short, the appropriate broadcast structure for the agency is bottom up: strong radio foundation, everything else follows. With the IBB hucksters, the approach is latest techie gizmo down: what we call the pinhead approach. Not many structures stand for long turned upside down; and so it is with this agency. New technology has its place but it has to be proportionate to what has the largest broadcast footprint able to reach the maximum audience possible.
And don’t buy into the IBB nonsense that no one is making shortwave radios and no one is listening to shortwave broadcasts. Both are complete IBB fictions.
Fumble #4: Federalized or De-Federalized? BBG: D
Chairman Shell responded to a question on possible de-federalization of the career Federal Civil Service agency staff. According to Chairman Shell, the board wasn’t discussing de-federalization at all and it wasn’t on the board’s “To Do” list.
A few minutes later, board member Michael Meehan weighed in. Governor Meehan offered that there is a discussion of the subject happening outside the Cohen Building, including comments by former members of the BBG, possibly a reference to remarks or statements by former BBG member, Enders Wimbush. The issue has also gotten on the radar in certain congressional quarters
To anyone listening, it appears that Chairman Shell was insufficiently briefed on exactly what is going on in the realm of the big picture discussion of de-Federalization.
Exactly how much traction the de-Federalization option has remains to be seen. And the last thing employees want to be presented with is a fait accompli in some piece of legislation removing their career Federal Service status.
It would behoove the board to put out a unified statement on the de-federalization issue. That statement should be appropriately not in favor of such a move that in reality is only intended to expand the power of the IBB and not to any purpose that serves the national and public interest.
Mr. Meehan also took the opportunity to add that he does not favor having the agency subsumed within the State Department – which is kind of amusing because the Secretary of State, represented generally by the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, is an ex officio member of the BBG.
Governor Meehan’s inclination may be to preserve the symbolic “independence” of the agency. However, the agency’s record isn’t working in its favor and leaving it spinning wildly through the Federal universe may not be an appropriate option.
Fumble #5: Success in Iraq? BBG: F-
In trying to point to successes in the agency’s programming, Chairman Shell pointed to Iraq (perhaps referring to broadcasts by Radio Sawa and Alhurra television).
You have got to be kidding.
Most Middle East specialists point to Iraq as becoming a vassal state of Iran and appears to be far along in that process. In addition, sectarian violence is on the rise in Iraq.
This is success? For Iran’s regional ambitions certainly, but for US policy, not likely.
And Let’s Not Forget…
Governor Matt Armstrong weighed in with some very interesting remarks.
In so many words, Mr. Armstrong expressed concern over a lack of a true strategic vision, true planning and true ability to integrate what the agency is doing, why it is doing it and not spend money twice in one place. He also talked about having the confidence to go to Congress to get funding that is “rightfully ours” because the agency’s mission represents a good value.
If there was anyone sweating in the Cohen Building auditorium during this meeting, it might have been Bruce Sherman, the agency’s architect of its “strategic plan.” Readers know how we feel: the so-called “strategic plan” is neither “strategic” nor a “plan.” What it represents is an IBB strategy of delayed accountability, like former Soviet five-year plans.
Someone on the IBB staff must be a big admirer of the Soviet approach to “planning.”
As one of our acquaintances observed caustically, “Five year plans didn’t work for the Soviets and it won’t work for that agency.”
Keep in mind: every day the agency lacks the requisite competence for strategy and planning, the more irrelevant it becomes in relation to other international broadcasters who have done their homework, have expanded their reach and credibility with global publics and don’t rely on oxymorons as their message.
Expressing the agency’s funding as something “rightfully ours” is an interesting choice of words. In truth, it’s the American taxpayers’ money. How much money is appropriated and authorized runs up against other national foreign and domestic priorities. Nevertheless:
Governor Armstrong’s candor: B+
Agency not-so-strategic plan: F-, ad infinitum
There were some other remarks that we didn’t like, but this will do for now.
There will be other memos to the Board in the future, as circumstances require.
One hopes the Board will be better informed and fare better in the future.
Fumble #6: Game Over: No Grade
Regularly in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, the paper runs a feature called “Worst Week in Washington,” by Chris Cillizza.
Richard Lobo, the retiring IBB Executive Director was presented with a plaque during the BBG presentation.
To paraphrase the parting line of the column:
Richard Lobo, for having the worst presidential appointment/assignment in Washington, atop of “the worst organization in the Federal Government,” and then having the agency later labeled “dysfunctional and defunct,” congrats or something.