This BBG Watch Commentary is based on several inside sources.

Bureaucratic power-grab

After making a good start on destroying Voice of America’s ability to fulfill its unique mission of informing the world about the United States, the next target of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and International broadcasting Bureau bureaucrat are now the surrogate broadcasters.

Sources tell BBG Watch that the power-grab by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) bureaucrats is killing morale at the grantee surrogate broadcasters: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), which otherwise have enjoyed very high morale when compared to how the BBG, IBB, and Voice of America (VOA) staffs view their own managers and their leadership qualities.

The bureaucratic power-grab is the proposal to merge all three grantee organizations under one administrative umbrella.

At the same time, BBG/IBB bureaucrats have already grabbed even greater share of resources from the Voice of America (VOA), decimating its broadcasts and staffs. If morale at the surrogate broadcasters is bad, it is ten times worse at VOA, where entire language services are being abolished and its mission of representing the Unites States undermined in a direct violation of the law.

The IBB/BBG management team is in effect abolishing VOA’s broadcasting capabilities, particularly radio, and giving itself control over VOA assets to use for their own bureaucratic purposes. If they were also to gain full control of the surrogate broadcasters, it would be a frightening prospect considering that they have been consistently rated as the worst leaders and managers among all federal government executives. Keep in mind that they are the ones who proposed to end Voice of America Tibetan radio broadcasts while Tibetan monks were self-immolating and Tibet was burning

These BBG and IBB bureaucrats have always had much more control over the Voice of America than the surrogate broadcasters. The merger proposal is designed to put them also in firm administrative control over these privately-run but publicly-funded entities.

The grantee broadcasters are each focused on a particular area of the world and run by professionals who understand special needs of their specific audiences. To the extent that they can be effective, it is due to their programming specialization and administrative independence. They were in fact specifically created by Congress to be independent and to specialize.

The merger proposal in its current form will destroy their independence and ultimately their ability to specialize. This would make them ineffective. They will no longer be run by area specialists and journalists who are in touch with their audiences but by BBG and IBB bureaucrats. And, as we said before, these bureaucrats are the worst in the entire US federal government. It would be equivalent to putting experts in cracking safes in charge of the bank.

For example, the BBG’s CFO’s office has grown by leaps and bounds in the past couple of years while Voice of America staff is being decimated and top programming positions handed over to big contractors. And yet with all those new accountants in place, the CFO still can’t pay BBG, IBB and VOA contract employees on time. One could only imagine what havoc BBG and IBB bureaucrats would cause if given administrative control over the much more efficiently-run grantee organizations.

As these bureaucrats eliminate broadcasts and other information programs, International Broadcasting Bureau offices in the Cohen building are growing out of control. Many sources describe these IBB bureaucrats as being “totally out of touch with the actual broadcasters.”

The argument that the merger proposal will save money by eliminating duplicate administrative positions is completely false. It will simply transfer assets and resources from the grantee organizations who know how to use them efficiently to support specific missions and programs that they understand and feel passionate about to incompetent and power-hungry bureaucrats who have little knowledge of specific regions and their programming needs and care little for the suffering of those who live under oppressive regimes. If they did, they would not want to eliminate VOA radio to Tibet.

They even want to give themselves the power to actively market BBG programs in the United States by repealing the Smith-Mundt Act. Placing all BBG programs, including those from surrogate broadcasters, in public domain is a great idea. To that extent, the Smith-Mundt Act should be modified. But allowing these non-specialist bureaucrats to focus on an NPR-like outreach in the United States will simply further undermine the USIB’s core international mission.

By proposing to end or drastically reduce Voice of America broadcasting to China, Russia, Tibet, Vietnam, Laos, Georgia and many other countries, proposing to decimate VOA English and Spanish programs, and to eliminate Radio Free Asia shortwave radio transmissions to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, these bureaucrats have shown over and over again their indifference to serving the information needs of core international audiences.

Sources tell BBG Watch that BBG member Susan McCue, who as a former Chief of Staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has more Congressional experience than other Board members, is working on putting together the US Innovation Act (USIA), hoping to pass all kinds of US international broadcasting legislation in one package. Ironically when the United States Information Agency (also USIA) was in charge of US international broadcasting before the BBG came into existence, it would have been inconceivable for VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet or any other nation ruled by a communist regime to be terminated.

It will be interesting to see what emerges from Susan McCue’s effort, but if the proposed legislation limits even further accountability of BBG/IBB officials and puts them in even greater control over strategic international broadcasting assets, the results would be disastrous. These officials claim that they are using audience research, eliminate duplication and save money in a period of tight budgets. Sources among experts at the surrogate broadcasters say, however, that the research techniques these bureaucrats use are flawed, that they can’t interpret correctly even those research results that are accurate, and the whole claim of saving money is false. No money is being saved. It goes to expanding their bureaucratic empire and lining the pockets of big contractors.

If the house is on fire because of a design flaw, one doesn’t go to the house architect to change the design. One calls a fire brigade. If Susan McCue is relying on advice from BBG/IBB in-house “experts” — the worst leaders and managers in the federal government according to OPM surveys — the proposed legislation is bound to increase their power while diminishing public scrutiny, undermining the efficiency of US international broadcasting operations and wasting taxpayers’ money.

A letter addressed to Congresswoman Kay Granger (R – TX), Chairman of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the House Committee on Appropriations and to Ranking Member Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D – NY) criticizes the Broadcasting Board of Governors for expanding their bureaucracy at the expense of critical overseas broadcasts and U.S. strategic interests:

The proposed reductions are driven not by a considered strategic world view, but by bureaucratic expedience and a fundamental misunderstanding of the mission of VOA. If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted, the staff level for VOA will be reduced by 13.2% from the current year. In contrast, only 3.3% of the positions from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which provides administrative support to the BBG, will be cut. If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted the number of full time equivalent (FTE) positions for the IBB will rise from 593.2 in fiscal year 2011 to 678.2. In the same time period VOA will lose 121.2 FTE positions. The general trend of the IBB has been to grow larger while the number of language services they support is being reduced. Broadcasting should be the last thing to be cut. It makes little sense to grow the bureaucracy while cutting that which it is meant to support. The eliminations and reductions in broadcasting to Tibet, China, Laos, and Vietnam alone will cut 28 positions from VOA.

Link to the Letter

What the BBG needs is to reform itself, starting by sending their failed bureaucrats into early retirement, reversing their program cutting proposals, reaffirming Voice of America’s unique mission and preserving the autonomy of the grantee organizations. It would certainly be a welcome news in Tibet and in many other countries where desperate people see the Voice of America and the surrogate broadcasters as their only hope and their only news link to the free world.

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