International Broadcasting Bureau – Dysfunctional and Defunct Are Our Best Brands – Information War Lost: Between The Lines
By The Federalist
We are taking another look at the article by Joe Davidson in the Washington Post (“Agency tries to improve its low morale,” February 19, 2014).
The article deals with the subject of low morale at the Voice of America (VOA), the flagship operation of US Government international broadcasting.
The Partnership for Public Service (PPS) has an $84-thousand dollar contract with the agency to try to improve morale. The Partnership for Public Service engaged in a variety of workshops with agency employees and managers. According to Mark Doboga of PPS, “Leadership was a key area in every session.”
In the Federal employee survey, the agency’s lowest marks are in the category of leadership. Here is why you shouldn’t be surprised:
Let us examine a statement made by one agency official:
“We’re still very early on in this process, which could take three to five years to complete.” (emphasis added)
This statement was made by Barbara Brady on the subject of the agency’s morale “improvement” efforts. Ms. Brady has been around the agency a long time. She is not some low-tier functionary. She is the “Chief of Staff” for the Voice of America (VOA) Director, David Ensor.
On its face, the statement is absurd. It is particularly absurd IF you know the history of the agency:
- It has consistently ranked at/or near the bottom of the Federal employee workplace satisfaction survey since its inception years ago.
- It has been called the worst organization in the Federal Government.
- It has been labeled one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government.
- It has been accused of losing the information war by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
- It has been further labeled defunct by former Secretary of State Clinton.
And that is where it rests today, rightly labeled and fairly close to implosion, in large part due to a seriously flawed “strategic plan” which will now be supplemented with a “three-to-five-year morale improvement plan.”
When you examine the Brady statement in this context, you can reach certain wholly negative conclusions:
- Agency management is seriously inept at addressing deep-rooted problems.
- Agency management is quite content to maintain the status quo.
- The agency engages in superfluous actions (the PPS workshops) to attempt to show it is doing something. We call this “motion without movement;” or, in agency management parlance, “baby steps.”
So much revealed in one utterance by Ms. Brady.
Whether or not the Broadcasting Board of Governors is buying into this proverbial display of nonsense remains to be seen.
We know these agency bureaucrats very well. It always pays to read between the lines in the statements they make.
Again, you have to put things in a context.
One such context is the Deloitte report the agency contracted for a couple years ago. In brief, this report endorsed the Bruce Sherman/Jeffrey Trimble-created “strategic plan,” which has since been described by critics, including BBG members, as “neither strategic nor a plan.”
One key element of the plan was a conclusion reached in the report that staff disruptions were an expected part of the plan and that the agency should brush them off and proceed full speed ahead.
IF you know that, you acquire more context to the Brady statement.
Further, one needs to look at the current and future agency budget picture.
On February 20, 2014 agency officials held one of their “town hall meetings,” the preferred method of delivering bad news to the staff. The meeting was presided over by Andre Mendes, a member of the “interim management team.” In this meeting, Mendes reported the following:
- Eliminate funded but vacant positions.
- Reductions to the VOA Urdu service, mostly in radio.
- “Rationalizing” (agency word for reducing) VOA Afghan radio broadcasts, handing off more responsibility for these programs to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
- Eliminating the remaining VOA Farsi language radio broadcast to Iran and making Radio Farda (part of RFE/RL) as the US Government’s main radio presence in Iran.
- Eliminating vacant positions in the agency’s Beijing, Jerusalem and Moscow bureaus.
- Eliminating the VOA Greek Service.
- Eliminating the VOA Albanian Service radio broadcasts in favor of a claimed “very successful TV strategy.”
- Reducing the VOA Latin America Service, ending long form radio programs and reducing Creole radio broadcasts to Haiti.
- Closing the VOA New Delhi bureau.
- Closing RFE/RL Balkan services over the course of FY2014.
- Reconfiguring how the agency uses its broadcast transmitter sites.
- Reconfiguring how it goes about its audience research.
- Attempting to expand audiences in Burma and Africa.
Mendes noted that there were some additional, mandatory earmarks or cuts that had just been submitted to Congress around the time of the meeting, the impact of which have yet to be determined.
And then there is FY2015.
Here, the devil is in the details which are not publicly known (although likely known by agency officials and the BBG), as the FY2015 budget submission (at this writing) won’t be presented to the Congress until on/or about March 4.
Mendes concluded his remarks with some observations:
- The agency faces a “transformation imperative.”
- This is a “seminal moment” for the agency.
- The agency needs to streamline and optimize its operations.
- Management will try to minimize cuts to the journalism and content aspects of the agency, “the lifeblood of the organization, the lifeblood of the Charter” (note: “try” is not synonymous with “will”).
- This was an “inflexion point” for the agency; that the agency needs to operate differently and be as lean as possible.
At that point, Mendes opened the meeting up to questions from the staff.
But before that began, Mendes had to be reminded to introduce the other two members of the “interim management team,” Robert Bole and Suzie Carroll, who sat silently through the Mendes presentation. Mendes appeared to have gotten himself caught up in what we call an “I, Me, Mine” moment and forgot the other two members were present.
When you consider the Mendes presentation, it adds further context to the Brady statement.
One of our veteran observers put it quite well:
“This agency is going to get very small, very fast.”
That indeed appears to be the intended trajectory.
When you see that as an outcome, one can conclude that what Ms. Brady was really talking about was:
- Smaller agency.
- Substantial portions of the workforce reduced or eliminated.
- Remaining staff sufficiently cowed into submission.
- Thus, no more morale problem!
- All nice, neat and tidy in three to five years!
In short, what you have is VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials continuing to move on the parameters of the debunked “strategic plan,” without regard to the plan being largely repudiated.
Of course, none of this makes the agency any less dysfunctional and defunct. But it does go a long way to cementing the labels permanently. It makes the agency less effective, less impactful with global publics who in large part have already moved away from reliance upon the agency for substantive news and information, turning to other international media providers.
It means US Government international broadcasting, particularly as applies to the Voice of America, is rapidly becoming little more than an inside-the-Cohen-Building charade.
At the end of the day:
Always read between the lines and distinguish the difference between what people on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building say and what might be a different meaning altogether.
Accountability delayed is accountability denied.