BBG Watch Commentary


Article by former Voice of America (VOA) journalist Gary Thomas in Columbia Journalism Review on journalistic practices at VOA and management of U.S. international broadcasting within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
VOA management refused to answer questions for a CJR article. A spokesman for VOA Director David Ensor later accused the journalist of errors. IBB and VOA management culture encourages such attacks on critics.

BBG Watch has learned that Leslie Hyland has been hired as the new Chief Financial Officer for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Like nearly all top federal executives at the U.S. international broadcasting agency with the lowest employee morale in the federal government, she will be working for International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Director Richard Lobo who has been in his position since late 2010.

Ms. Hyland will come to the agency that nearly three years into Mr. Lobo’s directorship still has the lowest employee morale and the lowest management scores as determined by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). It is also rated as one of the worst places to work for in the federal government. She will also be working for Mr. Lobo’s deputy, IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, who has been at the agency since 2007 and recently functioned as temporary CFO.

Ms. Hyland was previously the Director of Financial Policy with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and prior to that the Director of Financial Management at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). These were both SES appointments. Her most recent job was as the Director of Audit and Risk Management at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

A previous candidate selected for the CFO position several months ago first had accepted and later decided not to take the job. Ms. Hyland was hired by Mr. Lobo, but agency bylaws require that her selection be approved by BBG Board members. Agency sources told us that all BBG members, including a representative of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, ex officio BBG member, think that Ms. Hyland is fully qualified. With only four current members, however, the board lacks a quorum to take formal votes. Sources told us that Ms. Hyland is nevertheless expected to start working at BBG in a few weeks.

Board’s Chief of Staff

Agency sources also told BBG Watch that while IBB Director Lobo and Deputy Director Trimble have moved ahead on filling the CFO position, they appear to have successfully blocked the Board’s efforts to hire a former Congressional staffer with years of legislative experience and extensive knowledge of U.S. international broadcasting as the Board’s Chief of Staff. The candidate became frustrated and found another job. Sources told us that while there is no documented proof, Mr. Lobo and Mr. Trimble did everything possible to delay the hiring while making sure that the obstruction could not be traced to them.

A BBG Chief of Staff with extensive knowledge of the agency would be a threat to the IBB executive staff, a source told us. Current Board members desperately want to create this position as a temporary measure to make sure their decisions and requests are not ignored by IBB officials and to get better control over  IBB bureaucracy.

But since Director Lobo is a presidential appointee who cannot be fired by the Board, BBG members are essentially powerless, especially since they currently do not have a quorum. Agency sources told BBG Watch that Director Lobo believes that he does not have to carry out Board’s decisions he disagrees with since there are currently not enough BBG members to take formal votes on any decisions.

The position of the Board’s Chief of Staff has not been created  and may not be for some time, sources told us. This position should not be confused with the agency CEO position that the Obama Administration proposed and which is being now discussed in Congress. If that position is created by legislation, as proposed by the Administration, Mr. Lobo’s job as the IBB Director would be automatically abolished. If and when this happens remains to be seen. We were told that the staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee under its Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) is working on drafting new legislation to reform BBG and U.S. international broadcasting.

IBB Director and Deputy Director

Agency sources told BBG Watch that BBG members are completely frustrated with low employee morale and numerous other management problems at the agency they oversee, but whose management they cannot easily control under the current legislative arrangement.

One source close to BBG members told us that while the Board is often blamed for the agency being mismanaged, the only constant element within the agency for the last several years have been its chief IBB executives. Many BBG members during that time have resigned and were replaced. Some were absentee members, others missed meetings and in addition worked for private companies that did business in Russia and China that depends on the good will of government officials or their associates.. Some of these former BBG members supported IBB Director and Deputy Director who were responsible for overall management of the agency, especially its federal entities, but also to some degree  its non-federal entities. In any case, IBB Director and Deputy Director are expected to advise the Board on management issues.

According to our sources, BBG members believe that the IBB leadership has failed to solve any of the agency’s longstanding problems. They include low employee morale, management culture that encourages hostility toward employees who voice criticism, stalling of management-union negotiations, unfair full-time employment of numerous contractors without protections and benefits, questionable multi-million dollar contracts, poor performance versus the competition such as BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today, inability to translate enormous investments in digital technology into social media engagement with audiences overseas, weakening of hard news reporting, and failing to grow BBG’s global audiences to even keep up with world population growth.

Sources told BBG Watch that Board members continue to be both amazed and appalled that Mr. Lobo kept all of the discredited IBB managers. In FY2012, he approved $90,000 for 12 outstanding performance awards for his top SES executives, averaging $7,500 each, but some as high as $10,000, even though OPM surveys gave them record low management skills ratings from employees who also blame them for low employee morale and hostile work environment.  With Mr. Lobo in charge, no top IBB official can be replaced if Mr. Lobo does not agree, even if BBG members asked for it, a source told us. There is absolutely no chance IBB and the federal part of the agency can be reformed as long as Mr. Lobo remains in his position, agency sources informed us.

Also according to sources, some BBG members hoped Mr. Lobo would receive another presidential appointment, but that did not happen. They can now only wait until he resigns on his own, the White House asks him to resign, which does not appear likely, or Congress approves legislation to create the position of agency CEO and automatically eliminates Mr. Lobo’s IBB job. Sources told BBG Watch that at least one thing is certain, the current members would never choose Mr. Lobo to be the agency’s future CEO if such a position is ever created.

A well-placed source told us that BBG members were especially frustrated with Mr. Lobo and IBB Deputy Director Trimble, who is a Russia expert, for not alerting them early to the developing management crisis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and with Radio Liberty programs in Russia and allowing the crisis to continue.

No immediate personnel changes in the top BBG leadership are expected except for a possible hiring of the General Counsel, which according to sources, may help to resolve some outstanding management culture problems if the right candidate is chosen who believes in personnel practices that encourage treating employees with respect and promote management accountability and transparency.

The agency has been without General Counsel for many years. Paul Kollmer-Dorsey has been for a long time Acting General Counsel and works closely with Mr. Lobo and Mr. Trimble. The BBG employee union, AFGE Local 1812,  blames these top IBB officials of ignoring legal verdicts and using delaying tactics to prevent re-hiring of illegally fired Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) employees.  These delays will likely cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars and are causing  enormous hardships for the former employees who have exhausted their savings, are losing their houses, are getting in debt, are being driven into bankrupcy and have no health insurance. None of this appears to matter to the current IBB management headed by Mr. Lobo and Mr. Trimble and advised by Mr. Kollmer-Dorsey, sources told BBG Watch.

BBG Members

Sources also told BBG Watch that many observers of U.S. international broadcasting bureaucracy suspect that some top IBB officials have been launching behind the scenes smear campaigns against sitting BBG Governors. This is a rather common practice in Washington used against rival departments and political enemies, but usually not directed by subordinates against their superiors, especially if they are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate as BBG members are. This may have resulted in the White House proposing a nominee to replace Governor Victor Ashe who has annoyed IBB leadership the most with his calls for accountability and transparency.

One of IBB executive staff’s worst nightmares because of his skills as a lawyer and a former politician in exposing waste of taxpayers’ money, Governor Ashe will not be leaving until the Senate approves his replacement, former Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Ashe, a former U.S. Ambassador to Poland and former mayor of Knoxville, is now the only Republican member on the Board, which is supposed to have four Republicans, four Democrats, and the Secretary of State.

Sources told BBG Watch, that two Democratic Board members, Susan McCue and Michael Meehan, have been working closely with Ashe and are equally frustrated with top IBB executives. They are both viewed by our sources as outstanding and highly engaged Board members who took a while to figure out the IBB executive staff but who are now committed more than ever to reforming the agency. According to sources, neither McCue nor Meehan plan to resign and hope to stay on the Board until they are replaced by the President.

It is not clear how soon the U.S. Senate will vote on Crocker’s nomination, nomination of another Republican Matt Armstrong, and Jeff Shell to become BBG Chairman. Shell has developed a good reputation because of his reaching out to seek input from various constituencies who support U.S. international broadcasting, sources told BBG Watch.

VOA Director David Ensor

Well-placed agency sources told BBG Watch quoting associates of some of the BBG members that they are almost as frustrated with Voice of America Director David Ensor as they are with IBB Director Richard Lobo. According to these sources, BBG members do not understand why Mr. Ensor, like Mr. Lobo, kept some of the problem managers who are viewed as being responsible for mismanagement and low employee morale. According to one source, Mr. Ensor is being regarded as a good former television reporter but also increasingly as someone who has not solved any of the longstanding problems at VOA but instead  made them worse by keeping the old management team while he himself is frequently absent on domestic and international travels. One source described the problem of Mr. Ensor’s management team as an albatross around his neck.

Many people were appalled, according to sources, when one of Mr. Ensor’s top managers tried to get an independent American journalist banned from covering the UN for having a private dispute with a VOA correspondent and sending emails with requests for help  which the VOA official found to be annoying.

Facebook and Twitter Top Stories - VOA, RT, Al Jazeera - July 7, 2013
Numbers of Tweets and Facebook "Likes" for top news stories on Voice of America, Russia Today and Al Jazeera English website on July 7, 2013. VOA is regularly routed in social media engagement by its foreign competitors.

According to sources, BBG members were also surprised that it was difficult to reach Mr. Ensor at the Aspen Ideas Festival when a broadcasting ban crisis developed in Cambodia and that he went on an extended summer vacation while a major news story developed in Egypt. Sources also told us that concerns about inadequate VOA news coverage of anti-government protests in Turkey, the military coup in Egypt, the crash of the South Korean passenger palne in San Francisco, and poor coverage of other major news stories continue.  VOA is often late in posting news stories on its main English website and instead of providing original coverage uses short news items from Reuters and other wire services that receive almost no Tweets and Facebook “Likes” while the competition such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today offer original news reports and receive thousands of  social media engagement points.

VOA management refused to answer questions for a Columbia Journalism Review article by a former VOA senior correspondent who outlined many of these problems. A spokesman for VOA Director David Ensor later accused the journalist of errors. IBB and VOA management culture encourages such attacks on professional reputation of critics — a practice that Director Ensor apparently condones. Some sources described VOA management’s refusal to answer general and simple questions from a former senior correspondent who had risked his life reporting news for VOA from both Afghanistan and Pakistan as spiteful while others compared it to how Soviet officials treated Western journalists who were asking questions about human rights abuses. According to sources, BBG members are appalled by how VOA management chose to deal with the questions and how it attacked an experienced and highly respected journalist writing for a highly prestigious publication.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

BBG Governors are, according to some sources, pleased that their efforts to reform management at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) have been successful with the appointment of Kevin Klose.  He has now a one year tenure as acting RFE/RL president which either has to be extended or a new executive has to be found. Sources told BBG Watch that BBG members are still having discussions on this topic. Sources also tell us that BBG members are still fuming over IBB’s inaction when the crisis at RFE/RL developed in late 2012.

Some of dozens of Radio Liberty journalists fired in Putin’s Russia by the previous American management of RFE/RL have been rehired by Kevin Klose, but not all of those fired have been offered a chance to return. Some of them were contract employees. RFE/RL is reportedly short on money.

Sources tell us that Klose likes to work quietly without publicity. It is not clear what his plans are with regard to other former Russian, Kazakh and other employees who were fired by the former management and not yet rehired. It is also not known what his plans are to resolve the issue of discriminatory contracts for foreign journalists working at the RFE/RL headquarters in the Czech Republic. There are two pending lawsuits, one at the European Court of Human Rights.

Kevin Klose has, however, brought a measure of stability to the organization and a return to sound journalistic practices. He is highly popular among current and former RFE/RL employees.

Speculations About  Future of U.S. International Broadcasting

Our sources point out that it is still much easier for BBG members to solve problems at the surrogate or grantee organizations such as RFE/RL than it is with regard to VOA and IBB because of resistance from IBB leadership and bureaucracy.  Sources also told us that Governors Ashe, McCue and Meehan would like to reform IBB and VOA the same way they responded to the crisis at RFE/RL but at this time they are being frustrated by IBB executive staff.

Sources also point out that the same IBB executive staff wanted to bring surrogate media entities under its central control with their merger plans that many are now questioning. Sources tell us that IBB with their grandiose centralization plans and central planning should be carefully studied on how not to organize and run U.S. international broadcasting. What happened at RFE/RL should be a warning that central marketing plans do not work for audiences in countries without free media.

Some of our sources hope that if Jeff Shell, Matt Armstrong and Ryan Crocker are confirmed by the Senate, the Board might have a better chance to force some changes at IBB and VOA. But a departure of Victor Ashe would be seen as a major loss for the agency.  Employees, union leaders, former employees and  other outside experts all agree on this point.

Some of our contributors hope that a future CEO might be able to help solve the management crisis at IBB and VOA, but many are concerned that if a wrong person is selected, it could turn out to be a disaster. They are afraid of too much power being given to one individual without any checks and balances. They would like to see a limited term. They agree that the Board, if it remains, should have the power to hire and fire the CEO, but they would still like to see him or her to go through a confirmation process in the Senate to make sure that Congressional oversight is maintained. They do not know, however, whether a non-presidential appointment and Senate confirmation are legislatively possible.

After watching the RFE/RL crisis and successful effort by BBG members at recovery, some observers are telling BBG Watch that having a bipartisan oversight BBG Board may not have been such a bad idea even though they like many others had been critical of the BBG Board before. They point out that like with everything else, much depends on who is appointed to serve on the future Board if there is one. Many believe that there should be an oversight board of some kind to prevent partisan and political interference with programs and bureaucratic excesses in the future.

There is no doubt, however, that a major reform is needed focused on shrinking the IBB bureaucracy and bringing it under control. There is near universal consensus that IBB should be abolished and its top executives sent into early retirement no matter which of the many proposed solutions are selected. Most of our contributors favor separating Voice of America from being linked even administratively to surrogate broadcasters and giving the private grantees the independence that Congress originally envisioned for them while also keeping and strengthening the VOA Charter for VOA which should continue to provide news and opinions to the world on behalf of the American people. Our sources do not see how surrogate broadcasters can do the job of VOA and remain surrogate broadcasters or how VOA could function as surrogate media for some countries and maintain its status as the Voice of America.

One suggestion on which many agree is that enormous but largely nonproductive resources accumulated by IBB executives through elimination of programs, programming positions and news production should be divided among the programming entities. IBB rank and file employees could be moved to BBG, VOA, Office of Cuba Broadcasting and possibly assigned by BBG  as federal employees to serve program delivery and other technical needs of the grantees.

Everybody we talk to agrees that one change that could have saved the agency several years ago and one that must be done to save it in the future is a complete replacement of the agency’s top management team that destroyed  much of the programming and employee morale, can’t even arrange for prompt and original coverage of important White House press conferences while violence in Egypt escalates and by default sends overseas audiences to Al Jazeera and Russia Today for comprehensive coverage of major news events even in the United States. On this, there is universal agreement. These failed managers need to leave.

Stay tuned.

Comments are closed.