BBG Watch offers a wide range of commentaries on current issues in U.S. international media outreach, public diplomacy, disinformation, and propaganda.
The following commentary is by The Federalist, one of our longtime observers of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets providing news programs to audiences abroad.
All views expressed are those of the author.
Voice of America Information War: Dead
Conundrums of Self-Promotion
By The Federalist
Here is something that caught our attention:
“Andre Mendes Path From CIO To CEO Of The Broadcasting Board Of Governors,” (June 22, 2015) by Peter High a contributor to Forbes Magazine.
Here is the link:
“Andre Mendes Path From CIO To CEO Of The Broadcasting Board Of Governors.”
For comparison and balance, you will also find texts of recent Andre Mendes staff memos at the end.
What’s Wrong With This Interview? Plenty
In reading the article, one would think that (a) the agency is an example of a finely-tuned, well-oiled machine in the Federal government and that (b) Mr. Mendes, by intimation, is largely responsible for it.
But there is a problem.
In its effect, the interview distorts a broad array of serious issues confronting this Federal agency.
This interview may be one of those instances when compulsive bragging overpowers reason. We explain:
- This agency is one of the worst-managed organizations in the Federal Government (confidence in senior leadership, among others) according to numerous Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and seemingly is permanently so.
- You would not know that Andrew Lack, chosen by official action to be the agency’s first choice for CEO left the agency short of two months in the position.
- You would not know of significant legislation working through the Congress to reform this agency and the reasons why.
- You would not know of myriad congressional hearings, Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports and analyses both inside and outside government regarding salient deficiencies in the operations of this agency.
- You would not know of the extent that agency media platforms are being successfully blocked, have little or no resonance with key strategic global publics, especially in case of the Voice of America (VOA); with rare exceptions VOA services lack any significant audience engagement–“Likes,” Tweets and Readers Comments– or cannot be supported by infrastructure or economics in the target areas.
- You would not know of an enormous violation of Federal regulations in the hiring of contractors far beyond the agency’s regulatory authority.
- You would not know that the agency’s employees have consistently rated the agency as one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government, again according to OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys.
- You would not know that the agency has often been found to be at fault in its personnel practices through employee and/or union-initiated administrative law proceedings and had to pay millions of dollars in back pay and benefits to mistreated employees.
Last and certainly not least, you would not know – but as most of official Washington does – that this agency has been officially described for the record by high-ranking Barack Obama Administration officials and Congressional leaders as:
- “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)
You would be amused to know that Mr. Mendes has declared that he wants some of these words “banned” from being uttered, at least inside the Cohen Building (BBG headquarters in Washington).
Good luck. Former Secretaries of State, Democrats and Republicans, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Ranking Member seem to hold a different opinion on how to describe the agency.
You would also be amused to know that Mr. Mendes has made unilateral declarations that the agency has “improved,” as part of an apparent effort to influence employee participation and hopefully responses, with compensatory time off, to the most recently completed Federal workplace employee survey and perhaps also to enhance Mr. Mendes’ prospects for being more than just the interim CEO. In reality, there is little material basis for this claim.
From our perspective, the best “improvement” this agency can make is another CEO selection from outside the agency: someone untainted by the agency’s record, someone who is not a promoter of “business as usual” inside the Cohen Building and pass it off as some kind of “improvement” in the agency’s mission performance. Indeed, it is the only sensible decision that can be made.
Why This Is Important
This agency costs the American taxpayers around $750-MILLION dollars a year. With some very limited exceptions, it is generally money misspent. The agency’s mission effectiveness has collapsed through a series of decisions and failed attempts to broaden the agency’s reach. By comparison to other international broadcasters, it is weak and ineffective, especially in new digital media–thousands of Facebook “Likes” and hundreds of readers’ comments on RT’s posts to barely a few on VOA posts in English and in many other languages. Thousands of Twitter followers for top BBC or New York Times reporters to barely a few for VOA reporters, with just one or two exceptions.
“Business as usual” is not an option for this agency. There are only two realistic courses of action: (a) reform the agency through legislation and/or (b) to reconstruct the agency – not the mission – through a new structure for US Government international broadcasting.
Impacting global publics is a high value US strategic necessity. There are far too many elements around the world which have successfully elevated their messaging at the expense of the United States. These international actors include Islamic extremists who use their messaging as a recruitment device and to promote terrorism. Separately, state broadcasters, such as Russia, China, and Iran, have a substantially different world view than that of the United States and their messages have increased traction at the expense of the United States. On a strategic level alone, the continued failure of this agency creates a serious vulnerability that endangers Americans abroad and contributes to threats to the US homeland.
In short, the agency needs to be fixed or replaced. There are no other workable or timely alternatives.
Technology Without Resonance
Screenshot image of Voice of America website hacked by the Iranian Cyber Army on February 21, 2011.
In the interview, Mr. Mendes, who before becoming interim CEO served from December 2009 to March 2015 as CIO/CTO, Director, Technology, Services and Innovation, Broadcasting Board of Governors, International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Director of Global Operations, claims the agency has “likely the widest distribution portfolio of any western media organization.” This is an oversized claim. Any examination of other international broadcasters would demonstrate the same array of technologies much better applied to their media platform efforts–done and presented in a far more professional and audience appealing way and with no significant hacking attacks as the one against the Voice of America by the Iranian Cyber Army. There is also one more important distinction: in many of these other cases, other broadcasters and state actors are realizing meaningful impact.
Mr. Mendes tries to equate technology with reach. It isn’t working for this agency, particularly for the Voice of America.
As we know from direct observation, the agency has demonstrated that it is feeble in radio, satellite television and online and mobile app content appeal in comparison to a variety of known international broadcasters like the Russians (RT), the Chinese (CCTV) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). With all the “bells and whistles” that Mr. Mendes claims as the agency’s delivery platforms, the agency nonetheless finds itself at a disadvantage. Routinely, other international media outperform the Voice of America in terms of depth of coverage (a hallmark of the BBC in particular), timeliness and updates on breaking and developing stories (BBC and RT), visual appeal (BBC and RT), YouTube videos (billions of views for RT).
It is also worth noting that many places the agency needs to reach with its strategic broadcasting maintain effective control over digital media and can, and in some cases do, effectively block BBG news program content.
In the meantime, the agency has severely cut back its direct radio and satellite television news broadcasting and appears poised to cut more in FY2016.
Questions Over Audience
In the course of the interview, Peter High asked the following question:
High: “How do you measure success? What metrics do you keep readily at hand to determine whether progress is being made or not?”
Mr. Mendes replied:
Mendes: “We run a substantial number of surveys on a regular basis that allows us to establish weekly audience reaches. At this point, the latest numbers are at about the 250-million weekly audience members that have been documented and that is substantial when you think about the environments in which we operate…”
The agency has budgeted to spend in one five year period, $50-MILLION dollars to conducts audience surveys. Our review of PowerPoint presentations connected to these surveys show they scrupulously avoid asking salient questions to determine if respondents can actually see, hear, read or otherwise clearly identify uncensored VOA programs in the survey area and whether these programs contain any news content, especially news content to which governments and undemocratic regimes would strenuously object to.
Thus, that makes the Mendes figure of 250-million weekly audiences highly suspect.
In previous commentaries, we have noted the many ways the agency can inflate or fabricate its audience numbers. The most common tactic is to use estimated audience numbers for the foreign radio or television stations on which the agency has purchased time to place its programs, in some cases without any uncensored news content. If a station claims an overall audience of 5-million, the agency turns around and claims that number as its audience on that station. The question to ask is not only whether audiences even realize they are consumers of BBG programs and whether there is anything in these programs that any private U.S. media entity could not also place in a foreign country without having to pay money for the right to place it. BBG is using paid placement because it can’t get a significant audience any other way, even when the Internet in a given country is not being blocked.
These surveys also spend a lot of space describing how foreign media consumers get their news and information. As one example, these surveys show increased Internet usage. However, what these surveys do not identify is if it is agency program content that the potential audience is accessing. We know that is not the case by the dismal audience engagement numbers for VOA on social media. And when it comes to societies and governments that block or filter foreign news content, particularly if it is unfavorable to the national government, it is even more questionable that VOA news programming is getting past government censors.
As a result, with these types of countermeasures in place, the agency has virtually no meaningful program reach in key strategic locations including China and Russia. Other countries are following suit and adopting the homegrown Internet models created by China which allow a certain amount of useful Internet access to appeal to its population but will control or block news and information from external sources in what they believe protects their national interests.
If you know this, you know to be wary and skeptical of the audience numbers (250-million weekly) that Mr. Mendes declares. The more likely scenario is that the agency’s numbers are significantly less than what Mr. Mendes claims, particularly when the agency relies increasingly on pre-censored program placement or technology that can be and is being interdicted while the agency continues to reduce its direct radio and satellite television broadcasting and news programming.
And even when using Mr. Mendes’ number for the sake of discussion, with a caveat that significant portion of placed VOA programming is self-censored by VOA to eliminate unpleasant (for local governments and regimes) news because otherwise it could not be placed locally even for a lot of money from US taxpayers, one has to weigh it against a global population of 7-BILLION. With 43 VOA language services and those of the BBG grantee stations that alleged “reach” becomes significantly diluted to the point where impact becomes marginal if one eliminates countries like Mexico which already have free media and where VOA seeks placement because it is easier to achieve. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in many cases has much better social media stats than VOA despite, or most likely because of, its hard-hitting journalism to countries without free media.
Here is another quote of note:
Mendes: “We have tremendous reach and audience levels in Indonesia, which includes the largest Muslim population in the world and a country that, although it is operating under a democratic regime, still has some challenges in terms of freedom of the press and obviously could be rife with opportunity for recruitment by organizations that would be interested in radicalizing some of these individuals. So the panoply of targets and distribution methodology that we bring to the table is truly amazing and something that, quite honestly, I wish the American public was more familiar with.”
To put it mildly, there appears to be a lot of baloney here.
As to “tremendous reach and audience levels in Indonesia,” how does Mr. Mendes explain that in the BBG FY2016 budget proposal, it calls for the elimination of VOA Indonesian radio broadcasts (and others) which may still include non-censored VOA news and other non-censored news content which is being self-censored or pre-censored by VOA and possibly further censored by local gatekeepers in programs specifically designed for placement?
It seems rather unlikely that the BBG would commit mission suicide by eliminating a broadcast effort that has “tremendous reach and audience levels in Indonesia.”
Could Mr. Mendes be referring only to programs that are pre-censored by VOA to allow them to be carried on local networks? What is the value of such programs?
Should US taxpayers be paying for these self-censored VOA programs, which presumably can be and are duplicated abroad with US movies, songs, books and magazines translated into local languages and presumably even making money for US based media companies?
And here is something else for the American public to be familiarized with in regard to Indonesia:
According to its laws, the Indonesian government prohibits broadcast or rebroadcast of news from a foreign source. That is a big problem for the agency, in terms of the accurate, balanced and comprehensive news requirements of the VOA Charter, which is US law.
As a result, VOA is reduced largely to nothing more than an “infotainment” provider to the Indonesian stations it has program placement agreements with and US taxpayers paying for self-censored VOA program placement.
Worse, some of these stations describe VOA as their own “Washington news bureau.” Not bad for the Indonesian station. Not good for the Voice of America, VOA Charter, and uncensored news reporting.
But it gets worse: these same stations in some countries are also able to censor VOA program content at will–even program content that VOA may have already pre-censored to make it more palatable to local governments, regimes and stations. They can accept or reject VOA program material, as they wish. Similarly, they can edit the content or they can reduce any identifiers of program origination. They can claim the broadcasters are their own and not US Government employees or, in the case of television, substitute their own logo for that of VOA. VOA may be aware of these practices, or not. They may be banned in placement agreements. But in any case, VOA can’t do anything about it except to cancel placement. If it does, its audience numbers will drop. The natural tendency would be to overlook such practices and allow them to continue.
In consequence, the VOA Indonesian Service and other VOA services which rely on local, paid or unpaid, program placement cannot reliably or successfully execute the mission directives of the VOA Charter. Impact is sacrificed for questionable audience reach.
Other Metrics Issues
Under former Voice of America director David Ensor, VOA declared a “digital first” strategy which intended to prioritize delivery of Internet media content. The effort has largely been a failure. BBG Watch has done numerous comparisons of international digital media coverage on major news events. These comparisons consistently show the agency lagging far, far behind other international media sources– in timeliness, comprehensiveness and above all in audience engagement through social media
For all the money this agency has spent on “audience research,” there is a reality staring Mr. Mendes and the agency in the face: immediate feedback to its digital postings to its websites and Facebook pages. It may not be fully “scientific,” but the viewer to these pages can see right away how much interest the agency is generating in its “digital first” mode. Unfortunately, it is rather pathetic, especially when a person can do side-by-side comparisons with the BBC, RT and others.
Numbers tell the story: the Voice of America is getting slammed regularly and substantially by other news and content providers in “Views,” “Likes,” “Comments” and other indicators of audience interest.
Thus, this instant feedback on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other outlets are another indicator of the agency’s real numbers – and they appear to be anemic.
Worse, comments to VOA stories, whether Internet troll-driven or genuine are, in addition to being very few, often hostile and negative, frequently anti-US.
Here’s another meaningful exchange in the article.
High: “How do you work with other agencies and departments of governments (sic)? How do you determine what countries need the content you provide, for example?”
Mendes: “We work very closely (emphasis added) with (the) State Department to identify strategic targets for our information. Now, having said that, we also uphold the highest levels of journalistic integrity. Anyone that thinks this agency is involved in propaganda dissemination really does not understand what we do on a constant basis. We believe there is a way of disseminating American values, of disseminating the truth, while at the same time being faithful to that journalistic integrity. But without a shadow of a doubt, the changing geo-political circumstances clearly indicate the need for us to be in close alignment with the foreign policy of the United States to be sure that we direct our efforts to areas of the world that need them the most.”
What Mr. Mendes is doing here is talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.
On the one hand, he has to recognize that the agency is part of the Federal Government. It is not a “news company,” as former VOA director David Ensor tried to portray it.
On the other hand, he is trying to placate the “Back Off Congress” VOA news correspondents who want nothing to do with the complete requirements of the VOA Charter and are opposed to legislative reform of the agency.
It may be argued that opposition to legislative reform of this agency did more harm than good to the agency’s “journalistic integrity,” when certain employees publicly staked out extreme scenarios in which it was claimed that the agency would become a tool of the Central Intelligence Agency or the Department of Defense if the original legislation was approved by the Congress and signed by the president.
At the End of the Day
This agency is in serious trouble. It can’t carry out its mission as required by the VOA Charter. It is every bit as described:
- Practically Defunct
New leadership for this agency must come from outside the four walls of the Cohen Building. Senior agency officials are tainted and compromised by the record they have constructed. IF the agency is to survive, it needs fresh eyes and a clean perspective from someone outside the agency qualified to do substantially more than perpetuate “business as usual.”
IF the BBG decides to do otherwise and make an internal choice for CEO, we feel reasonably certain that the agency’s end will come very quickly.
Mr. Mendes would have been better served to give a much more candid assessment of what confronts this agency.
In our view, he chose to do otherwise.
READ: Andre Mendes Path From CIO To CEO Of The Broadcasting Board Of Governors, Peter High, Forbes, June 22, 1915
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Thursday, June 25, 2015 2:07 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: UPDATE – FEVS Participation rates
You are no doubt curious as to whether or not we were able to reach the 75% participation rate we were aiming for and that would result in all staff getting 2 hours of administrative leave.
Well, the answer is a little complicated. Read on…
In the unadjusted numbers, the BBG participation rates ended up as follows:
BBG – 72% (71.8%)
VOA – 72% (71.7%)
IBB – 77% (76.7%)
OCB – 79% (78.8%)
So at first glance, it appears pretty clear that we did not make that 75% goal and that nobody gets the said 2 hours of leave….but, and this is where it gets a little complicated, these numbers are unadjusted. OPM will now reconcile the numbers with the Agency’s actual population during the survey, versus the population that was used to send the survey invitations out. That will properly account for folks that have left the Agency, were not eligible, etc.
Last year, the difference between the initial number (65.8%) and the final number (68.7%) was 2.9%.
If the same gap was true this year, then 71.8% + 2.9% = 74.7% which would round out nicely to 75%! (Mathematically, 74.5% will suffice!)
So the answer is….not yet, maybe and stand-by for an update when OPM finalizes the analysis of the numbers.
But meanwhile, let’s rejoice in the following facts:
· While the overall government unadjusted participation was flat at 46%, the BBG’s participation rate went up by 9.1% (from 65.8% to 71.8%)
· OCB’s participation rate went up by 33% to an Agency leading 79% with the Edward R. Murrow Greenville, NC station leading the way at 100%
· The BBG’s participation rate is actually a whopping 61% higher than the government at large.
Now some might downplay these numbers as irrelevant and even mock this missive but, personally, I believe that they indicate a level of employee engagement that will lead to further improvements around the Agency.
While I sincerely hope our satisfaction rankings within the government go up substantially in September, I am already thankful to all of you that chose to participate and drove our rate to what might prove to be an Agency record.
To those of you who chose not to fill out your survey, I trust that the continued work that will be done around here until the survey comes about again, will convince you to join your colleagues next year as we rally behind the Agency and bring about the changes you want and the changes that will ensure our increased relevance in the world.
With warmest regards and wishes for a favorable adjustment in OPM’s final numbers,
Andre V. Mendes
Interim CEO & Director
From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Monday, June 8, 2015 4:05 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Let’s get to 75% Participation – Last week of Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey
As we enter the last week of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, I encourage you to make your voice heard.
Help us get to 75% participation rate by taking the survey and everyone will get – TWO HOURS OF ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE!!!
Over the last couple of years, your outstanding journalistic work throughout the world has made a definite impression.
For Fiscal Year 2015, the BBG’s budget was almost $25M more than the original
President’s request. For Fiscal Year 2016, the Administration’s initial request is $30 Million more than last year.
We have also been busy reforming the Agency internally. Initiatives are coming online at a furious pace as we continue to push for increased agility in the 21st Century.
In response to your survey feedback, some recent internal organizational efforts include:
• A new policy that allows for up to 8 days of telework per pay period where applicable.
• A renewed monetary rewards program with 50 Quality Step Increases, 80 Gold Medals and another $700K in other cash incentives during FY15.
• A new 5-Tier Performance Management System to assist with addressing low performance and recognizing outstanding performance.
• A new Learning Management System to enable us all to manage our training and career paths.
• Access for every employee to an outstanding online
• Up and coming Automated Time and Attendance System (October 2015).
Everywhere you look you can see our Agency on the move. We need your help in continuing this transformation.
For too long, this Agency has been characterized as one of the lowest rated Agencies in the Government. It is time that we change that narrative.
With your help, we can drive our survey participation rate to record numbers. And if you believe that things are indeed getting better, let your feedback reflect that.
Deadline is Friday, June 12. Let’s make 75% participation happen!
With warmest regards,
André V. Mendes
Interim CEO & Director