Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War: Lost

Reality Check

By The Federalist


There are some things we need to remind ourselves about the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the rest of the agency’s management structure. It should serve as a permanent reminder until circumstances dictate otherwise.


What do you think the top priority is of the agency’s entrenched bureaucracy?

The answer: self-preservation and preservation of the status quo.

This does not include the agency’s mission.

It should be obvious at this point.

The cadre of longtime officials of the agency does not believe nor support any remedial effort to pull the agency out of the depths of its mission failure. These officials and even some of the new ones would be inclined to approach Members of Congress and urge them to back off passing necessary reform legislation. They may put it in the context of time, perhaps for a year or so.

In effect, this is buying time. But seeing a major sea change in the agency’s mission performance is not the priority here. It is more a case of buying time for agency bureaucrats: getting them closer to retirement and a comfortable pension. They are incapable of doing anything else.

There is no one inside the Cohen Building who is capable of making the kinds of changes necessary to turn this agency around. Here is why:

Change is a weapon. In this case, making changes to the agency would be a weapon against the institutionalized bureaucracy. Certain changes would represent a direct indictment of the failure of these managers and their administration of the agency. These individuals will analyze any proposed changes and find ways to undermine them if they represent a threat to their status quo. They have done it before. And more so, if anyone insists that the changes go through, that puts a target on the instigator. People in this bureaucracy have not hesitated to engage in character assassination and other personal attacks against political appointees and others who threaten the bureaucracy’s gravy train.

But keep in mind that “change” is a double-edged weapon.

When agency officials talk about “change” they are talking about taking the agency down a path with two outcomes: technologies that are vulnerable to interdiction without a reliable back-up program delivery option serving the most needy and oppressed audiences, and further distancing from the provisions of the VOA Charter.

Here is what we all know and what agency officials can never admit to:

The agency has lost its audience where it had impact and a need for its substantive programs.

This speaks to the agency as a whole. There may be a language service here and there that still retains a measurable audience with some impact, but that has largely become the exception and not the rule. The bureaucracy can site figures of a record high worldwide weekly audience, but much of that audience is to programs that generate little impact, mostly in countries that need it less than others.

Contemporary technology allows for views, hits and “Likes” to be measured independent from agency claims as to its audience. You can see it all right in front of you, on VOA websites for example, on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. A mere handful of comments or zero comments and few “Likes” on VOA websites, much of it from the United States, is pretty lame when you are talking about a global population in the BILLIONS which the agency is supposed to serve. It is a known fact that VOA pays for Facebook ads to increase the number of “Likes” on its various Facebook pages.

The only effective mechanism to turn the agency around is legislation. There have been bills introduced in the Congress that would change this agency and/or enforce provisions of the Voice of America (VOA) Charter that have gone off the rails in recent years – and deliberately so at the hands of agency bureaucrats.

In so many words, the agency has to be taken out from under the hands of the bureaucracy that is holding it, the employees and its mission hostage. Restructuring and a transfer of function looms large as the only way to salvage the agency: if it hasn’t gone so far past the point of no return to justify the effort.

Let us remember why this is important:

Entrenched Agency officials are advocates for business as usual. New CEO John Lansing told BBG staff “We will create a working environment that is free of personal favoritism, coercion,reprisal and retaliation and other prohibited personnel practices.” That’s great on a micro level if he is able to carry out his promise against opposition from the failed bureaucracy, but on a macro, strategic level he is opposed to legislative reforms that could ensure good governance and prevent the bureaucracy from continuing to damage the agency and its mission now and after Mr. Lansing is no longer in the picture. There are no structural reformists among the BBG or senior agency management. They like things the way they are and are only interested in perpetuating their power: until the career bureaucrats can retire on a fat pension or the political appointees are sent packing when their terms expire or when a new administration (either Democrat or Republican) comes into office.

We already know two things that speak to the business as usual motif:

In testimony before Congress, John Lansing rejected a provision of the proposed reform legislation calling for two chief executive officers. Mr. Lansing wants it all and in the process earns the label of “Chief of Everything Officer.” In turn, this increases the prospects for being chief of everything and master of nothing.

When the newly-appointed VOA director, Amanda Bennett, refers to a “fantastic leadership team,” unless she misspoke, you know that this is an expression of support for business as usual. If she really meant it, the statement is outrageous and flies in the face of the agency’s record as being one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government. In effect, her characterization of the agency management is an official denial of the agency’s true posture, intending to cover up the agency’s horrid performance, much like another statement from a BBG board member describing the agency as “a whirlwind of positive change.”

Ms. Bennett was also quoted in private exchanges as saying that the place is going to have to get “way, way, way better” and even offered some examples of poor VOA performance, also in private exchanges with some staffers. She may be “one tough woman,” as one person described her, but this has not been her public message, which is what really counts.

Public statements that the agency is doing a phenomenal job and seeing major reforms are intended to influence thinking, both within and outside the government. There may be a handful of people who subscribe to this rubbish for their own personal self-interest, but reality is inescapable and unavoidable:

This is a failed agency.

It cannot be reformed in the long run without major structural reforms.

Individuals outside the agency have been asked the question “Is the agency worth saving?”

The answer is this:

The mission of the agency is worth saving. The agency in its current organizational structure is not.

If you want to talk about “leadership,” you need to talk about it in the context of new leadership. The leadership that is in place is corrupt, incompetent, venal, self-serving. It needs to be tossed and done so in a big way. These people are nothing more than big time losers and ridiculously rewarded for being big time losers with bloated six-figure salaries, hiding behind regulations that prevent them from being sacked, as they would be in the real world. They need to become acquainted with a process known as termination.

The American taxpayer and Members of Congress need to see the agency as it really is, as the employees know it to be:

The Causes:

A cabal of management that is:

  • Corrupt
  • Incompetent
  • Inept
  • Self-aggrandizing
  • Self-serving
  • Vindictive

The Effects:

  • Dysfunctional
  • Defunct
  • Broken
  • Rudderless
  • No Impact
  • No Resonance
  • No Audience with Impact

One follows the other. They go hand-in-hand.

And one should also know this:

There are no miracle workers in this management structure who can transform it or restore it to some semblance of credibility and effectiveness.

Not John Lansing.

Not Amanda Bennett.

These individuals may be fine people in their own right. That’s not the issue. It’s the deadwood and the failed structure they are surrounded with. One CEO, not confirmed by the Senate and accountable only to a cheering part-time board with its own internal conflicts of interests, can’t run all of U.S. international media outreach or change it. This is not a private sector organization. This is a public institution, a U.S. government agency. This is not a Hollywood film industry company or a TV cable entertainment company or even a U.S. domestic news outlet. It cannot be run by accidental hires. It requires highly-trained specialists who know foreign policy and foreign cultures. It has to be restructured by an act of Congress. Ironically, limited internal management reforms may make it easier for future CEOs and future bureaucrats to wreak even greater havoc with U.S. broadcasting and American interests abroad.

And, as far as ability is concerned, the bureaucracy has been dead on arrival for years.

They can be dressed up in business suits and swagger down the hallways of the Cohen Building, but they are nothing more than an entrenched bureaucracy that has grown over the years at the expense of media programs and their effectiveness.

We know these people very, very well. They have an established track record:

They have largely destroyed a critical function in the Federal Government and have rendered it largely worthless.

Then, the next question is:

“Is the situation hopeless?”

The answer:

No. But a lot more effort is necessary to break the stranglehold of the entrenched bureaucracy on the agency and its mission.

Two powerful weapons in this struggle remain:

First is the annual Federal employee satisfaction survey. This survey is invaluable. It tells it like it is from the perspective of the employees. Agency officials hate this survey. It shows them to be as described above. They hate it even more because the results are published and are made public. It makes a record – and in this agency’s case a long record for being a hostile work environment and one of the worst agencies in the Federal Government.

Second is BBG Watch. The support inside and outside the Cohen Building for this volunteer effort has been effective in reporting and commenting on the agency’s performance – or as is more the case, the lack thereof. The BBG Watch audience is extensive among those who pay attention to the problem of U.S. international media outreach. As such, it runs a close second to the annual Federal employee survey in rankling agency officials and their determined effort to present a false narrative of imagined successes and improvements. Neither exists in reality. In effect, the bureaucracy has lost the ability to present a skewed, one-sided narrative.

Congress has many important issues before it. This dysfunctional agency does not rank now high among legislative priorities, as it did when the Voice of America was part of the much more influential United States Information Agency (USIA) which was staffed by hundreds of foreign policy professionals. The current lack of congressional interest in the BBG is particularly true in a highly-charged, partisan environment that the Congress is in now.

The BBG, however, does not deserve a pass on being scrutinized and remedial legislative action taken. It is not getting a pass because it is doing a splendid job. It is getting a pass because of more pressing national business, because it lost its relevance due to ineffectiveness, and because members of Congress are distracted by other issues.

No US president, senator or congressman has ever won or lost an election because of the BBG or the Voice of America. What that means to us is that legislative action to break the stranglehold of an unreliable and unaccountable bureaucracy is likely to be more effective at some point after the elections. But under the right set of circumstances, such congressional action could be effective even now.

There are two opportunities here:

One is the wind down of the Obama administration. Passing legislation to reform the agency is no sweat off the back of this administration at this juncture.

The other is that a new administration will take office in January. It doesn’t matter if it is Democrat or Republican. It is an opportune moment to clean house, replace BBG members on expired terms and make other management changes not subject to civil service regulations.

With this failed agency, it is always time to get down to business.

And there is no time like the present.


The Federalist

May 2016