BBG Watch Commentary

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

With their usual tact and people skills that have made them one of the worst management teams in the federal government responsible for one of the lowest employee morale ratings among federal agencies, chirpy-sounding International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Voice of America (VOA) executives told employees who might soon lose their jobs, as well as their colleagues who might be next, that they should “reinvent” themselves — a phrase as trite as it is dated. One executive assured employees that he “loves his job.” It was, by all accounts given to us, a disgraceful performance.

Their upbeat demeanor seemed completely out of place, but these IBB and VOA executives are not the ones being laid off in a RIF (reduction in force) they themselves had planned for those who are engaged in news reporting and program production.

As to the “reinventing” comment, it was received as an insult by many, since those being laid off are all highly-skilled multimedia professionals doing popular TV programs to countries like Albania, Bosnia, and Serbia and managing websites to countries like Iraq, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and others. The only way they could reinvent themselves would be to become like the bureaucrats who have eliminated their jobs to protect theirs. The only way they could reinvent themselves would be by joining the ever growing staff of advisors, assistants or special projects managers reporting to countless VOA and IBB executives.

In our view, it is these managers who should have reinvented themselves long time time. Instead of cutting programs to strategic regions of the world, they should have drastically reduced the number of bureaucratic positions they themselves have been creating year after year. (37% growth of mostly bureaucratic IBB positions in the last seven years.)

Former, highly-respected managers whom many employees still remember — people like Alan Heil or George Moore — would have never behaved this way. They felt genuine compassion for the employees and the employees knew it. Some of the current executives do not even know that they have to fake compassion even if they don’t feel it.

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

International Broadcasting Bureau – Taking the US Government OUT of International Broadcasting – Information War Lost:  Step Up!

By The Federalist


The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) needs to do a better job of upgrading its awareness of “inside the Cohen Building.”


Staff Meetings


These proceedings in the Cohen Building auditorium are used by senior International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and Voice of America (VOA) managers to announce bad news. There has not been a “good news” moment in these staff meetings seemingly forever.


The Messengers


The BBG doesn’t seem to appreciate that senior agency officials are thoroughly discredited. They do not have nor are they entitled to the confidence, trust or support of the working staff. Put any of these managers on the stage and automatically the reaction is, “the usual suspects.”

It doesn’t help to have someone telling the employees, “I love my job,” when those in the audience may face the prospect of reductions-in-force (“RIFs”) constantly in the narrative and perhaps looking more likely to happen.

The choice of words makes it clear that he is secure in his position while line employees are not.

The same applies to a Voice of America executive telling employees they have to “reinvent” themselves. That is nothing other than putting it on the employees to make up for deficiencies in the agency’s debunked Soviet-style “strategic plan.”

No amount of reinvention makes up for a bad plan, particularly when the employees know that it’s a bad plan.

In short, these spokespersons are either (a) damaged goods or (b) selling damaged goods.

In both cases, treating employees as if they are gullible and clueless is insulting to the workforce and a bad reflection on the Board.


Step Up!


When it comes to these kinds of funereal proceedings, BBG members need to show up and step up: deliver the news and take the employees’ questions directly.

Failure to do so and put the proceedings in the hands of discredited (and perhaps severely disliked) senior officials beats down BBG credibility.

That point being made, some board members have been in touch with employees directly, much like former BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe used to do.

We have also learned that when board members try to have candid, off-record conversations with some managers, the managers go running to David Ensor (the VOA director) and/or Steve Redisch (the VOA executive editor).

No one likes a snitch. But, these subordinate managers are probably scared to death of the Third Floor senior officials, feel compelled to profess their loyalty and snitch on board members and the topics they raise.


More Than What Meets The Eye


The employees tend to keep their focus “local;” meaning on senior agency management and the BBG.

But there are other players in their fate and that of the agency.

That means the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other offices of the Executive Branch, including the National Security Council (NSC) and advisers to the president.

Also in the mix are Members of Congress, some more and some less favorable to the agency’s missions (VOA’s and that of the other broadcasting entities).


Who or What is Driving the Bus?


Anyone reading our commentaries knows that we do not advocate the Obama administration’s foreign policy of “leading from behind.” You can’t “lead” from behind. That’s an oxymoron. It’s the perfect set-up for becoming a victim from lack of – fortitude.

Whether the connection is direct or indirect, to outward appearances the contraction of US Government international broadcasting seems to be in step with the administration’s withdrawal from global responsibilities.

In short, not all of what is being done is solely the IBB agenda, although larger issues certainly facilitate that agenda.

There may also be some buy-in to the IBB sales pitch to dump “legacy” technologies (in itself, an insulting term to use vis-a-vis employees) – direct radio broadcasts in particular – in favor of new technologies. It sounds great to congressional staffers whose world is awash with new information technologies (IT). The problem is large parts of the world are not similarly situated. Plus, the new technologies can be blocked or shut down without notice. On top of everything else, they do not generate a tremendous audience abroad. The results have been so meager, that IBB is including domestic U.S. audience in its data, even though the agency is specifically forbidden from spending any money on building a domestic audience, much less targeting a domestic audience.

If you can’t properly secure your transmission capabilities to protect your multimedia information flow, you look very, very foolish and inferior to those who you know fully intend to block your technology and your message if needed.


  • Congressional and other staff people may not fully understand or appreciate that the agency’s inferred claim that audiences on older, established technologies are automatically migrating to new technologies is bogus.


  • Congressional and other staff people may not be looking at or considering how long it will take the agency to develop these audiences, or the advanced countermeasures to these new technologies or the accessibility of these new technologies to large global demographics of potential new audiences.


As we have seen, senior agency officials have so undermined the core mission of the agency that it is regularly overtaken by events (“OBE”). The greatest damage has been to the VOA Central Newsroom, but the damage is also felt in the VOA language services which, with even less resources, are expected to take up the output of the Newsroom under the Ensor/Redisch “43 newsrooms” approach.

Of late, some veteran agency staffers are now openly commenting that the cumulative effect of what is coming from senior agency management not only compromises news output, but also has serious negative consequences for the agency’s mission, via the VOA Charter.

Let’s be honest: senior officials only pay lip service to the Charter and core news reporting principles as stated in the Charter. As the old saying goes,


“Actions speak louder than words.”


The agency’s reputation and core mission are not a priority under the new scheme for VOA or its entities, some of which are trying hard to resist pressures from IBB.

Further, there is no commitment to the agency’s workforce. To the bureaucrats on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building, the working staff is expendable collateral.

BBG Watch has noted the VOA broadcasting services targeted for reductions or elimination in the FY2015 budget proposal. Here are some of them:


  • Eliminate the VOA bureau in Jerusalem.


This is perhaps a perfect example of agency officials playing a game of “chicken” with the Congress, daring congressional appropriators and authorizers to approve this cut.


Israel is perhaps the only country in the Middle East that is stable and relatively secure (because it has permanent threats to its security). It is no secret that the governments in Tel Aviv and Washington really don’t like each other. Seemingly, the White House doesn’t have an appreciation for the security concerns of a country under almost daily threat of rocket attacks from the Sinai, Syria and Southern Lebanon.

The agency has correspondents in other countries far less secure. In Iraq, the BBG’s Radio Free Iraq (RFI) has had three staffers killed. One Alhurra correspondent is missing in Syria. In Egypt, where some VOA staff is located, foreign correspondents have been assaulted.

To suggest cutting the Jerusalem bureau, even as a symbolic gesture, makes the agency look like it’s being run by a bunch of fools.


  • Eliminate VOA Albanian Service


In FY2014, the agency plans to eliminate the radio operations of the VOA Albanian Service. In the February 2014 staff meeting, a senior IBB executive stated that the agency would be “refocusing on a very successful TV strategy.”

Must not have been all that successful, because the entire service goes off a cliff in the FY2015 budget proposal.

For the benefit of the BBG which created the “interim management team,” here is a great example of “foot in mouth disease.” At this juncture, it isn’t likely that this executive has a whole lot of credibility with the working staff.


  • Reducing the VOA Central Newsroom


It is not an overstatement to say that the Newsroom is dead. It cannot keep up with breaking and developing news. Neither can the VOA English website. It is clear that senior agency officials don’t want it to. Both are being run to fail. The agency’s budget statement makes glaringly false claims of “original news content,” being heavily reliant upon third party providers like Reuters. It is also co-mingling VOA content with that from the agency’s other broadcast entities blurring distinctions among them.


  • Reduce Indonesian Radio


Here, the agency intends to take off the air one, daily program. The agency claims that it will still have 50 hours of weekly Indonesian radio broadcasts and so-called “high reach” television.

The radio program being cut is described containing, “news, editorials, correspondent reports, features about America…” and the like. Essentially, this is the kind of content called for in the VOA Charter.

As to “high reach” television, the agency’s audience research remains suspect, particularly in Indonesia where oversized claims of success rival those of the agency’s Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN). These claims are made even harder to believe when you know that the Indonesian government forbids domestic radio and television stations from transmitting live or rebroadcasting news from international broadcasters. Plus, the Indonesian television stations can and do exert editorial controls over content provided by VOA. If the stations don’t want the material, they don’t run it.

And remember what a senior IBB executive said about a “very successful TV strategy.” At this juncture, there isn’t much credibility coming from the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.


Putting The Brakes on Dysfunctional and Defunct


The FY2015 budget proposal seems consistent with that of FY2014. The agency’s budget is essentially flat lining. That is a vote of no confidence by the Executive Branch.

What the Congress will do remains to be seen. However, it would not be stretching reality to say that Members of Congress and their staff people are frustrated, if not fed up, with the agency’s history of being an accident-in-progress. It has lost substantial resonance with global publics. Its audience reach is suspect and the numbers themselves appear to be a form of self-serving hocus-pocus.

In the February 2014 staff, a leader of the “interim management team” said the agency needs to operate differently and be as lean as possible.

That’s kind of bold talk since this agency has been driving relentlessly on a bogus strategic plan.

So much for “operating differently.”

The agency’s approach to pushing hard on its failure is nothing other than a form of cognitive rigidity – failing to be adaptable, flexible and willing to admit that its plan is toast. Of course, senior IBB and VOA officials have reputations to protect or cloak and all they have left is repeating very stale mantras that reflect the fiction that they live by.

As for “lean as possible,” those who follow the agency know that it needs boatloads of money – not to expand and improve upon its operations and mission but rather to throw gobs of money at seemingly intractable problems, many created by or resulting directly from management decisions.

The days of big money for the agency are – over.

It is also known to us that various employees troop up to the Hill to offer arguments in favor of the agency’s “legacy” operations. This is being countered by IBB officials arguing for “new technology,” technology that is familiar to congressional staffers but often blocked in key countries like China, censored, or out of reach for technical and financial reasons of many global publics. It’s hard to convince congressional staff that the IT tools they use every days are not working for billions of people in China and in many other countries.

While the employees may be right, they may need better messengers. The agency will take every opportunity to portray employees as disgruntled, eccentric, idiosyncratic and resistant to change. It’s a convenient dodge for the people who make the actual decisions: the senior IBB and VOA management.

At this juncture, it is hard for us not to subscribe to the view that the agency is dysfunctional and defunct. The momentum is in favor of the agency imploding and well along in the process.


The Federalist

April 2014