Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War Lost – Dysfunctional, Defunct and Ungovernable – The Gloom: Deep and Morose
by The Federalist
Members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) conducted another of the agency’s periodic “town hall meetings” on Wednesday, May 15, 2013.
The governors present – Ambassador Victor Ashe and Governor Michael Meehan – really had nothing substantively uplifting to convey to the employees. The stated purpose of the meeting was to talk about the administration’s FY2014 budget proposal and with it, more program and personnel cuts.
This may have been one of those times when it would have been advisable not to have held this assembly at all. Some employees felt insulted by the proceeding, another exercise in being disappointed.
Let’s begin at the end – taking note of something Ambassador Ashe spoke about toward the end of the session; namely, the inevitability of change.
From our perspective:
Change is an inherent part of our existence.
But there are many gradations to change. In terms of the dynamics of human activity, change – the effects or outcomes of change – are often influenced by the participants, their motivations, beliefs and perceptions.
The agency does not manage change very well. One of the chief reasons that it doesn’t is because the term “change” is used to cloak agendas and motives that have nothing to do with a budget process, evolving technology or the agency’s stated mission.
One such agenda has been (you know this refrain by now) the IBB’s “flim flam, Soviet-style, dysfunctional and defunct strategic plan.” For those who have followed this debacle-in-progress from the outset, there is little to be surprised about by where things stand. This alleged instrument of change was put ahead of many things that made the agency effective in the past. This alleged instrument of change was placed well ahead of the US national and public interest. This alleged instrument of change was placed out of the reach of many global publics which used to depend upon the agency as a reliable source of news and information.
Indelibly imprinted on our consciousness is a stated intention in this plan: that the IBB wanted to be more corporate-like in nature.
Well, they succeeded, sort of. They have remade themselves – seemingly in both image and action – “corporate” like Enron, which is synonymous with corruption and failure.
[The sculpted Enron corporate logo would almost seem appropriate anchored in front of the Cohen Building as a reminder of what the agency has become.]
As a result, the agency has gone flat, a message without resonance and seemingly being rejected in growing numbers by global publics.
What has long been absent in the agency are people who have the necessary expertise and acumen to manage change rather than impose change either by fiat or a greasy sales pitch that either ignores or avoids substance.
This is a key point: a managed approach to change isn’t flashy. It doesn’t produce press releases or line someone’s pockets with bonuses. It isn’t a one-sided monologue delivered by some IBB functionary.
But, managed change can be effective, positive and productive.
The VOA Central Newsroom
We have remarked that the core issue to where the agency is headed involves the Voice of America (VOA) Central Newsroom. How much the governors really know about the Newsroom – as opposed to what they are being told by the Third Floor – can be debated. But this is how it comes across in their remarks:
At one point in the assembly, Governor Meehan remarked that,
“We simply cannot sustain the current structure of Central News.”
In turn, this elicited a comment from Sonja Pace, the head of VOA Central News. In part, Ms. Pace observed of the remark,
“…it sounds like you’re saying we really don’t need a Central Newsroom anymore…There’s a great deal of concern about that.”
Governor Meehan then offered a scenario that if the United States Congress put him in charge of the agency with a $750-million dollar budget and the Congress wanted the agency to be an awesome news gathering agency in 100 countries in 61 languages,
“There is no way I would come up with a flow chart like the one that looks like the one we have in front of us. You would not organize this this way…You don’t want to throw all of it out but to change a bureaucracy that is invested in keeping the bureaucracy going isn’t good enough for me.”
In essence, the scenario Governor Meehan offered is not what the Congress has on the table.
One important consideration here is the Congress determines how US Government international broadcasting should be constructed to serve the national and public interest.
As a result, you have the VOA – the flagship centerpiece operation with the broad global overview – and the grantees (which are engaged in what is called “surrogate” broadcasting – in other words, targeted broadcasting to specific countries in which news and information are controlled or restricted). The two – VOA and the grantee entities – are not the same.
People on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building have wrapped themselves around the notion that this represents a “duplication of services.” This is – yet another – agency canard. If you understand the missions delegated and mandated to VOA and the grantees, you understand the differences: a global perspective offered by VOA and a more region or country specific perspective on the part of the grantees.
In listening to his remarks, it seems to us that Governor Meehan’s response was less about the Newsroom and more about the agency bureaucracy.
Indeed, what Governor Meehan really seems to be talking about are the bureaucracies that are intended to support these missions. Most conspicuous at the top of the pile is the IBB – and they most certainly do not want to be wiped off the organizational chart. They have fought the BBG viciously in this regard: in grossly insubordinate behavior and by infusing a State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) report with their personal and bureaucratic biases. Add to that their attempted personal and professional character assassination of Ambassador Ashe and other BBG members.
With the mess that the IBB has made of the situation, there is no magic silver bullet fix – other than to close the agency entirely – an avenue opened by former secretary of state Clinton when she declared the agency “dysfunctional and defunct.”
[Yes, she used the label “Broadcasting Board of Governors.” That’s because on the organizational chart, the board is at the top of US Government international broadcasting. But the dysfunction is with the IBB which has made it clear it wants to be in control – without accountability to anyone.]
Governor Meehan went on to observe,
“…the world is not a better place for free press and free media. It’s just not.”
He then went on to later remark,
“I believe in the work that you all do but I don’t believe we should keep the same structure because that’s the way it’s always worked.”
In our view, the structure (VOA and the grantees) is determined by global circumstances. The problem is the IBB strategic plan, the agenda behind the plan and what is evident: a plan incompatible with global circumstances the structure is intended to address.
Governor Meehan also cited Cuba as an example where media is changing. He noted the growth of mobile phones and the Internet, where Cubans are, “…selling lawnmowers over the Internet.”
It is a considerable leap between selling lawnmowers over the Internet to engaging in media freedom. What is more likely, the Cuban government is following models constructed by the Chinese, Iranians and Russians in which they are molding their information technology and accessibility to meet their needs, with controls on content.
In this scenario, one should not immediately expect Cubans turning their Internet access into a broad forum for overthrowing the current regime. More than likely, there is a jail cell with your name on it should one try going in that direction.
In talking about the structure of US Government international broadcasting, Governor Meehan also opined,
“We’re going to have to break some eggs here.”
[There’s a problem with that because all these “eggs” are in one basket. Handled poorly (the standard IBB “modus operandi”), the end result can likely be all the eggs broken and the basket obliterated in the process.]
Governor Meehan correctly observed that the agency is composed of legacy institutions (VOA and the grantees). They will not go quietly into the night. Those that are successful have worked hard to establish and maintain credibility (in spite of, not because of the IBB). The gumbo that is the apparent intended outcome of the IBB mumbo-jumbo plan makes for a great deal of confusion and ambiguity. And when that happens, you can wave good-bye to credibility, audience and effectiveness.
Aftermath in the Newsroom: Another Meeting About the Meeting
The next day (Thursday, May 16) David Ensor (VOA director) and Steve Redisch (VOA executive editor) made one of their periodic forays into the Newsroom. There isn’t much to report: they offered the usual mantra about the “importance of the Newsroom,” etc. The general feeling in the Newsroom seems to be that both appearances – the governors on Wednesday and the Ensor/Redisch sortie into the Newsroom on Thursday – were less than inspiring. The mantras have gone stale.
Effects of Sequestration
Employees expecting sequestration to be a passing anomaly learned this will not be the case. Employees were told that program reductions allegedly the consequence of sequestration will not be restored. Thus, the effects of sequestration cuts will be permanent.
If the Third Floor intent was to preserve the agency’s core mission and minimize the adverse impact of sequestration, reluctant acceptance might be seen as reasonable. But that’s the problem – this isn’t the apparent IBB intent.
Sequestration fits nicely with the IBB agenda to take the agency out of the business of US Government international broadcasting and that makes the agency out of kilter with its stated mission.
The Technology Placebo
A comment came up in the assembly regarding technology. To condense the remark:
“As you’re dividing up the pie…keep in mind that digital doesn’t necessarily mean technology…that we need good content producers for that information that’s going out…in the past what has happened sometimes is that we’ve requested an enhancement and when the enhancement is approved it all went into the technology and none of it went into the content production…we really need the content production side to be supported as well.”
What the staffer is talking about here is the agency has purchased new technology without having the requisite personnel to produce news and program content to be delivered via the new technology.
And in the meantime, core production technology is overtaxed and subject to breakdowns and disruptions. Indeed, we are supplied a regular stream of emails detailing failures large and small of the agency’s DALET system and other technologies. The agency’s tech people are fully occupied keeping the needed technology up and running while new layers are being added to the agency’s technology array which by the nature of the enterprise would seem to raise issues of compatibility and systems integration.
Let’s be clear, technology requirements across all agencies of government represent a prodigious task. To keep this agency up and running is not a model for “doing more with less.” In the IBB “bass ackwards” approach, the agency is “doing less with more:” adding new technology that is under-resourced while existing core technology gets bogged down in system failures. As a result, program content gets frozen in the agency’s digital dimension sometimes without leaving the Cohen Building.
At The End of the Day
What this meeting and others like it convey is the future of the agency isn’t all that promising; and the only change afoot appears to be of the negative variety.