BBG Watch Commentary
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, has a new, energetic and tough board chairman, Jeff Shell, who wants to reform it and is serious about it. After all, Hillary Clinton called the agency, which he now oversees, “dysfunctional” and “defunct.” Its lead entity, the Voice of America (VOA), has become so bad in posting news that Russia Today and Al Jazeera regularly beat it by margins of thousands in Facebook “Likes” and other indicators of audience engagement through social media.
Most insiders and outside observers familiar with the situation, including many members of Congress and their staffers, know that absolutely the first and necessary step to reforming the agency is a quick departure of top IBB and VOA executives who over the last several years have brought U.S. international broadcasting to where it is now.
These executives are not only responsible for losing the competition with foreign broadcasters such as Russia Today and Al Jazeera. They have also been rated in numerous Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) as being some of the worst managers in the entire federal government, and agency employee morale under their leadership as being one of the worst.
Jeff Shell and some of the new BBG members are well aware that the management team is responsible for this crisis. They themselves studied the agency’s management issues long before being confirmed by the Senate and heard the same story from some of the former and current BBG members like Ambassador Victor Ashe, Susan McCue, Michael Meehan, and Tara Sonenshine, a former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. She represented Hillary Clinton and John Kerry at BBG meetings.
Shell and another newly-appointed BBG member Matt Armstrong met last week with staffers of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. These committees have oversight over U.S. international broadcasting. Shell and Armstrong are seeking support and help in Congress in carrying out reforms. BBG Governors also met last week with OMB, sources told us.
Their reform task will not be easy. IBB executives, who remain as the main obstacle to change and to raising employee engagement and morale, will not go away without a fight. We have heard reports of BBG members being threatened with lawsuits if they dare to remove anyone of deny them a promotion.
We have also heard that when IBB Director Richard Lobo was asked whether he would consider stepping aside, he reportedly said that he would rather stay on in his position. As a presidential appointee, Lobo cannot be forced to leave. Not even the BBG Chair can make him go.
Lobo, in turn, protects and keeps Senior Executive Service (SES) bureaucrats. BBG members also are powerless in trying to remove these managers unless Lobo agrees. He does not and has in the past rewarded his deputies with outstanding performance bonuses, some as high as $10,000, despite their dismal management record, until BBG members finally halted these awards. Lobo put his top managers responsible together with him for the record low employee morale at the agency in charge of improving employee morale.
All of this may explain the reason for Shell’s and Armstrong’s consultations with Congressional staffers. There is a legislative proposal from the Obama White House that would automatically eliminate Lobo’s job and create a CEO position for U.S. international broadcasting. The CEO would be appointed not by the President but by the BBG board, and therefore could be removed by the majority of BBG members for poor performance.
In the past, IBB executives managed to play BBG members against each other. Also, with the support of a previous BBG chairman, they got the board to approve the strategic plan which would greatly expand their bureaucratic powers by greatly reducing independence of surrogate broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).
As the Voice of America, with the exception of only a few VOA language services, is becoming more and more dysfunctional under its current leadership, these surrogate broadcasters are practically the only ones still active in pursuing the BBG’s mission of “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
Under the IBB, nearly 40 percent of the BBG’s federal workforce consists now of “non-essential” employees and countless contractors who have no job security or any significant rights, whereas 20 or 30 years ago, almost all VOA/IBB employees were full time employees and most were considered “essential.”
Sources told BBG Watch that the majority of current BBG members realizes that there is nothing strategic about the IBB strategic plan, which is not only completely removed from realities of U.S. domestic politics, national security and public diplomacy, but even in its partial implementation has already done great harm to U.S. international broadcasting.
Sources told BBG Watch that both Shell and Armstrong were quoted as saying that there is nothing strategic about the plan and that it is not even a plan. Critics who support U.S. international broadcasting have been saying the same thing from the moment the plan was unveiled.
According to sources, Shell was quoted as saying that the agency will continue to use the old plan until BBG members are ready themselves to do a strategic plan. This may be a wise decision for someone who has just started his job. Meanwhile, it is full steam ahead for IBB’s chief strategist Bruce Sherman on creating new performance measures on the old plan. We can only imagine, what results this exercise will produce, considering that performance standards established before and the implementation of the plan have resulted in one failure after another.
As Chairman Shell pointed out, it’s not just a question of what to produce, but also how to deliver the news product and how to measure success. It is easy to gain an audience with fluff journalism in non-critical nations that do not restrict foreign media, especially if IBB pays for program placement. It’s a completely different challenge to reach and develop an audience to serious journalism in strategically important countries and regions, such as China, Russia, Iran and the rest of the Middle East, that bar or restrict foreign media and practice domestic censorship and political repression.
The old strategic plan does not address these issues and the Voice of America, being the closest to the IBB and its confused strategic planners, is the most confused about its mission and is now the most mismanaged BBG entity other than the IBB itself.
BBG members apparently have seen examples, some as recent as from two days ago, how this BBG Watch website, has to serve as the managing editor for the Voice of America by pointing out major news stories which are not covered or covered late and inadequately on the VOA English website and VOA foreign language sites. In addition to failing to manage news and other essential functions, IBB and VOA executives keep expanding the bureaucracy at the expense of programs and news reporting positions.
Lobo and VOA Director David Ensor had a chance to show leadership and to clean house by removing some of the worst managers among their senior executive staffers. They not only failed to do that, but instead extended their strong approval and protection to these managers, giving their blessing to the dysfunctional management culture and alienating almost the entire workforce.
Little wonder that former Secretary of State Clinton called the performance of the entire agency “dysfunctional” and “defunct.” She herself was an ex officio BBG member.
Much of the blame was attributed, quite rightly, to some of the former BBG boards. But starting last year, a majority of BBG members decided to put a stop to mismanagement, while those members who supported the IBB executive staff thankfully resigned and departed.
That’s how Victor Ashe, Susan McCue, Michael Meehan, and Tara Sonenshine were able to save Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) from a public diplomacy crisis in Russia and a managerial meltdown in Prague.
BBG members were able to prevent the RFE/RL crisis from destroying U.S. international broadcasting because one of the few powers they still have is the ability to remove and appoint entity heads (other than the IBB Director). Kevin Klose was selected to lead RFE/RL. He is in the process of repairing some of the damage caused by the former management team and inactivity on the part of IBB’s top executives.
As the crisis at RFE/RL in Prague and in Moscow was developing, IBB executives did nothing to stop it, which, according to high-level sources, led Susan McCue to confront IBB Deputy Director and Russia expert Jeff Trimble.
BBG members had made a mistake earlier of delegating some of their powers to IBB Director Lobo. They assumed, wrongly, that IBB executive staff will deal will problems such as the one that occurred at RFE/RL. They have learned their lesson.
But reforming the IBB is a much bigger challenge. Many hope that under the leadership of Jeff Shell it can be done, but it will not be easy and may not be fast.
One more item.
We do not have much faith in the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the State Department, knowing how IBB executives teamed up with inexperienced OIG inspectors to smear the reputation of one of the finest BBG Governors and public servants Ambassador Victor Ashe because he dared to call attention to IBB management failures and waste of taxpayers’ money.
But we report for the record that BBG Watch has now learned that the OIG had sent Richard Lobo a draft of their review of the IBB’s Contracts Department. According to sources, the OIG review is brutal.
Apparently, only Lobo, Jeff Trimble and perhaps one other executive have seen the review. But instead of fixing what is clearly a total break-down they are preparing a defense and not sharing the review with BBG members.