BBG Watch Commentary

Bad MangementNot all Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) members have been great. Some were disengaged or simply awful, and contributed to the U.S. international broadcasting agency becoming, in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “dysfunctional” and “defunct.”

But the only constant element within the agency in recent years have been its top executives in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America (VOA). They have taken advantage of some of the ill-informed and disengaged BBG members to continue doing damage to the agency, its mission and its employees. They have held on to their jobs for years, while part-time BBG members depart and new ones are appointed who need to figure out what is going on. By the time some of them do, they are replaced or decide to leave in frustration.

Some very good ones and some very bad BBG members were serving on the bipartisan board last year when former Governor, Ambassador Victor Ashe, started to ask IBB and VOA managers hard questions and began a probe into a managerial meltdown at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), another entity funded and supervised by the BBG.

He was soon joined by other BBG members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, and the then Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine. She was representing Hillary Clinton and later John Kerry at BBG meetings. Secretaries of State are ex officio BBG members. Together, Ashe, McCue, Meehan, and Sonenshine managed to save RFE/RL and tried to initiate some reforms but were stymied by the bureaucracy and the loss of quorum.

Ashe annoyed IBB executives so much with his questions and demands for transparency and accountability, that they apparently launched an intrigue to get the White House to replace him and have succeeded in that effort. Soneshine left her position at the State Department last summer and has not been replaced. Meehan and McCue stayed.

Susan McCue, who was not afraid to confront IBB executives about their inaction in response to the RFE/RL public diplomacy crisis in Russia and on other management issues, will now soon be leaving the BBG Board. She was nominated by President Obama to serve on the Board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a federal entity which deals with global poverty issues.

Sources told us that McCue has become extremely frustrated with the resistance to reforms from top IBB and VOA bureaucrats. They are thrilled to see her depart as she has raised critical issues which have highlighted their poor performance, a high-level source told BBG Watch.

The BBG Board has not been divided along party lines, with some Republicans and some Democrats working well together, but McCue’s departure means the Republican members will hold a majority for the first time in recent memory. This is a change because until very recently, Victor Ashe was the only Republican left on the BBG Board. At that time, the Board also lacked a quorum and could not make binding decisions. This situation also played into the hands of IBB and VOA executives trying to avoid accountability for their poor performance.

McCue’s departure also removes the only woman on the Board. The RFE/RL Corporate Board also loses its chair.

The Board will also be back to only five members, meaning a quorum may be hard to achieve unless all five are there. If the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is confirmed then the number goes back to six. There will be three vacancies on the Board until the White House acts, even if the State nominee is confirmed. By law, the Board should have nine members: four Democrats, four Republicans, and the Secretary of State who is usually represented by the Under Secretary at BBG meetings.

The bad news for IBB, VOA and other poorly-performing managers is that the BBG has a new energetic and tough Chairman, Jeff Shell, who has held meetings with various critics of the IBB/VOA management team and apparently has plans to reform the agency. He will, however, need strong support from the other BBG members: Michael Meehan, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Matt Armstrong, and Kenneth Weinstein.

Sources told BBG Watch that most if not all will strongly support Shell in his reform agenda, but top agency executives are famous for knowing how to play BBG members against each other, a source added. Getting additional BBG members nominated and confirmed by the Senate would be helpful if they would have appropriate experience and would know what they are doing.

A source told BBG Watch that some of the top executives are so determined to hold on to their jobs that apparently vague threats have been made to BBG members of anti-discrimination lawsuits if their positions or promotions are threatened. If this information is true, it would be quite ironic since the same executives are resisting implementing legal decisions against them, ordering them to re-hire illegally RIF-ed Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) employees who are enduring enormous personal hardships. The refusal of these executives to respect legal judgements is costing the agency and taxpayers millions of dollars, with the final bill getting larger each day. It is not known whether BBG members were intimidated by such reported threats.

One thing is clear. Agency employees are still looking to Chairman Shell and new BBG members to do something about the worst managed federal agency. The Voice of America news reporting and its English website are a complete disaster due to mismanagement, with important news events reported late or not reported at all. This applies to news originating from Washington, not to mention such events as the presentation of the Lech Walesa Human Rights Award for imprisoned Russian opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

While trade union activists languish in prisons in Iran, China and in other countries and President Putin suppresses media freedom in Russia, the VOA English website had no news story on this event or Solidarity Trade Union leader’s 70th birthday. The Russian Service posted a story less than 100 words long almost a day after the event. Most other VOA language services had no reports. But RFE/RL, where the management was replaced by BBG members, reported extensively on this human rights/labor rights story.

Susan McCue’s departure will indeed be a great loss for the agency and the Board. The White House can help by nominating members who care about journalism, media freedom, and human rights abroad. Victor Ashe had suggested at one time that the President should nominate an African American to serve on the BBG as one of the regular members for one of the three vacancies which will soon exist.

The Board will also not have a single woman serving on the Board. Women need to be nominated as well. Top positions within IBB and VOA are also occupied by men.

There has also never been an African American serving on the nine member Board as a regular member except for the tenure of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice who served in their roles as Secretary of State but never attended a single BBG meeting during their tenure.

The Board needs more members like Victor Ashe and Susan McCue who were not afraid to confront the failed bureaucracy. Otherwise, IBB and VOA executives will continue to damage the agency as good BBG members are pushed out or leave in frustration and bad managers remain.