By The Federalist
The first thing to understand about the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) is that it has an established reputation for incompetence and dysfunction. This has existed for years and is getting worse, with a group of senior management officials who shouldn’t be running this agency under any administration.
This process of disintegration seems to have accelerated in the 20 ½ years of the 21st century. It is evident that the agency has not been able to keep up with the times and has intentionally resisted any effort at making needed structural and institutional reforms.
For Members of Congress who have oversight regarding the agency’s budget and operations, it isn’t worth the effort. There are too many important priorities that resonate with the American public, and which could have negative consequences when officials run for reelection.
Even though the agency has a total budget in the $700 million to $800 million range, in a multi-trillion dollar government, it’s less than a sideshow. It’s a defunct backwater of U.S. Government, almost completely off the radar.
It is hard to keep up with the rolling scandals that reflect upon the agency.
One to have recently surfaced is a plagiarism scandal that apparently has a history going back years and which was never succinctly addressed by agency officials. The story of note here has been reported by Paul Farhi of the Washington Post:
READ: When plagiarism was reported to Voice of America, managers delayed action for months. By Paul Farhi. The Washington Post, May 27, 2021.
As Farhi reports, agency officials took months to respond to the allegations. You have to know this agency to understand that the top priority of agency officials is “CYB” for Cover Your Behind.
In so many words, whatever the problem the objective of these managers is to make it someone else’s problem in an endless round of finger-pointing as to who should accept responsibility and take effective remedial action. Read the Farhi article and the avoidance of responsibility by current USAGM and VOA “leaders” literally jumps right out from the page.
“CYB” has been a longstanding tactic of these bureaucrats. On the surface, they’ve gotten good at it because people elsewhere in the government haven’t gone after the agency for its myriad lapses. These bureaucrats have gotten smug with the appearance that the tactic is working when in fact as the problems multiply, they look less and less capable. In short, it’s the “Peter Principle” on steroids.
Some people in the media – and perhaps inside the agency as well – might try to lay this particular failing on the lap of Michael Pack, the short-lived Trump appointee as the agency’s chief executive officer. That assertion would be false. A diversion. We have heard that the current VOA/USAGM leadership kept Pack and his team in the dark about the plagiarism problem. They obviously did not inform VOA/USAGM employees, members of Congress or the outside media.
Anyone familiar with the agency knows that except for a few short weeks at the end of the Trump administration, the agency has been headed by Obama-era appointees: through the Obama administration and much of the Trump administration as well. What this indicates is systemic incompetence by all the senior officials involved.
However, one of the other characteristics of this agency is the tendency to avoid being the messenger of bad news to the Third Floor of the Cohen Building where most of the senior agency officials reside, particularly those of the Voice of America.
What gets served up is a steady stream of “happy news:” things which have little if any practical application to the agency’s overall mission effectiveness. Chatty and insipid stuff particularly when we know the reality of how far this agency has fallen, as in:
For years, the former BBG Watch watchdog website and its current reincarnation, USAGM Watch, questioned the agency’s unilateral claims about its audience size. The claims have been suspect largely because the agency never publicly revealed methodologies behind its alleged samplings.
But blockbuster blows to the claims appear to be cresting the horizon:
First is a report that the VOA Persian (Farsi) Service is dead last in audience numbers in Iran:
READ: Iranians aren’t listening to America. By Ilan Berman, Opinion Contributor. The Hill, May 20, 2021.
This is bad.
This is one audience that one wants to be listening: what we would consider a priority, strategic language service broadcasting to a difficult regime, to put it mildly, which is largely considered to be a major state sponsor of terrorism, including support of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon among many of its other operations.
We often talk about the lack of impact and effectiveness of agency broadcasts. Here it is in stark view.
And we should also mention that the service has been a hotbed of internal squabbles with claims and counter-claims.
The controversy over the leadership of the Persian Service has been going on for years under some of the current VOA and USAGM executives. On and on it goes, with seemingly no end in sight.
And as we have seen with the plagiarism issue, the problems linger, fester and build upon themselves.
There is no reason to believe that USAGM has any major impact in the Russian Federation. As Russia’s head of state, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that he is a skilled adversary. He knows his global opponents and plays them well.
At present, we must be mindful that Putin and the Russian intelligence apparatus has had 40 or more years to study Joe Biden. In a manner of speaking, Putin may know Biden more than Biden knows himself. But that could be said of virtually any U.S. politician who gets on the Russian radar. As we’ve said before, the Russians know their playbook and they will run their playbook until someone stops them.
No one is doing a good job of stopping them at present and perhaps going back to 2008 when the Russians successfully invaded the Republic of Georgia. So there’s a history. Unfortunately, some people in U.S. Government, including USAGM, appear to be in some kind of denial.
Remember, the Russians have made the game of chess something of a national pastime. They look for weaknesses that can be exploited: both psychologically and in terms of maneuver.
USAGM officials have tried to make much ballyhoo over a program called “Current Time,” but that appears to have dropped off the radar: IF it was ever on the radar to begin with. Chalk up another win for Vladimir Putin. Nothing beats winning than winning some more.
And we shouldn’t forget:
There is some very disturbing chatter inside the Cohen Building that the VOA has lost a substantial portion of its Chinese audience. If as described anecdotally, it would represent a catastrophic mission failure. In any other agency of the Federal Government, this kind of disaster would be reason to remove agency officials. But again, this is the “US Out of Sight, Out of Mind Agency” which is an unsolvable and intractable mess.
And What About The Employees?
We’re glad you asked!
The results of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) are in.
So where did the agency rank in the latest survey, you ask?
Answer: where it has always been going back to the first survey years ago:
At the bottom or close to it.
That’s many years ago.
What makes this survey interesting is an admission just how bad it did in key categories of decline:
- Respect for senior leaders,
- Lack of senior leadership support for work-life programs,
- An increase in fear of reprisal for violations of rules or laws ,
- Lack of belief that the survey will be used to make the agency a better place to work,
- Employees don’t believe that senior leaders maintain high levels of honesty and integrity.
As we’ve said before, in any other Federal agency, these kinds of results, backed up with a long, long negative history would be reason enough to replace much if not most of the agency’s embedded, dysfunctional and incompetent “leadership.” The current “leaders” have been there for years, and some for several decades. In truth, the agency doesn’t have new “leadership.” It has the same individuals who have been running it for many years .
As proof of the comedic truth, we have the following statements in the agency announcement regarding the survey results:
“The downward trend may reflect past turmoil, but they do not predict our future. There are already many positives to celebrate such as respected, qualified leaders in place at USAGM and all six entities; a re-enforced (sic) editorial firewall; zero tolerance for reprisal against anyone disclosing suspected violation; a widely shared commitment to workforce health and safety; a well-supported performance management program that both recognizes and holds accountable supervisors and employees alike; and vastly improved internal communications.”
Whoever wrote this, we can tell you, in its entirety,
It’s a crock.
The record of this agency doesn’t support any of it.
You can start with the crock about “respected, qualified leaders.” Some of these “leaders” have been in senior positions for decades, and some for many years. The claim is laughable on its face, along with the rest of this paragraph. As far as “workforce health and safety,” someone may want to consult with the roaches, rodents (large and small) that have made the Cohen Building their home.
Quoting USAGM Acting CEO Kelu Chao from this announcement:
“I take these FEVS results seriously, and I realize it takes more than a few changes to drive up scores. My leadership team is carefully studying the results and creating a road map to address concerns, spotlight areas of improvement, and strengthen transparency and accountability across the board. In fact, prior to last year, agency management had been working earnestly to increase employee engagement and address issues identified in the annual FEVS survey; as a result, satisfaction scores went up three years in a row prior to last year’s survey.”
These claims are all suspect.
One suspects that the agency “leadership team” desperately wants to stay in place if and when the Biden administration gets around to making decisions about who it wants in senior positions, remembering that these positions usually go to outsiders.
Get the message?
In truth, these claims are much the same as had been made by others in the past.
The material impact of the claims was then, and remains now, minimal.
Under these “leaders,” the agency has never strayed too far from the bottom of the survey. And it should also be remembered that these abysmal survey results have been in place long before the Trump administration arrived. These are embedded, systemic problems reflected in the people holding senior positions in the agency.
But this is all part of the game plan of senior officials: keep making outrageous claims until someone calls them on it OR the problems become so profound that they cannot be ignored.