Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War: We Lost – The Big Kahuna Hits A Wall
By The Federalist
“This isn’t hyperbole: this is the complete and total failure of the agency. The fact that it is, apparently, self-inflicted makes it all the worse. We are doing what Putin would love to be able to do: the Voice of America is silenced,” — A Voice of America Journalist, Dec. 30, 2015
Readers of BBG Watch (BBGW) have been able to follow the late December 2015 unraveling of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) information technology (IT) broadcast production infrastructure with key components out of commission for a lengthy period of time. As one would expect, the impact was immediate, consequential and negative.
This latest catastrophe has agency employees hot and bothered. Sources have been providing BBG Watch with their own comments and the attempted explanations of the failure via official memos and email traffic inside the agency.
The only visible star of the show in this episode is Andre Mendes, the agency’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Other superstars, who have been with the agency much longer and share a much larger burden of responsibility for its failures, as usual ran for cover.
We don’t want out readers to get an impression that we are picking on Mr. Mendes alone. It would not be fair, considering the much larger contributions of others to the agency’s meltdown. Calling Mr. Mendes “The Big Kahuna” may not be entirely accurate either in the larger scheme of things, although he did try to make himself appear as such and the term describes him well. BBG Watch had what we believe was an accurate and balanced article about Mr. Mendes. It received a comment from a Radio and TV Marti broadcaster who credits Mr. Mendes for pushing along the process of getting illegally RIFed OCB employees rehired. BBG Watch believes that the credit for that belongs largely to the AFGE Local 1812 union, former BBG Governor Victor Ashe, other supporters and BBG Chairman Jeff Shell who reportedly personally ordered the reinstatement. Another comment was received from what BBG Watch believes to be a BBG management troll who apparently often tries to post pro-management comments on BBGW site using different names. BBGW said that it allowed the comment because in the opinion of BBGW it was a typical example of how agency’s top executives excuse their failures by making spurious accusations against rank-and-file VOA journalists and employees. It’s BBG management culture at its worst, BBG Watch said. They will never learn what it takes to inspire and lead talented and creative professionals. To imply that these BBG executives have been leaders in digital innovation being sabotaged by inflexible VOA broadcasters is truly both sad and laughable.
The same BBGW article talks about these invisible other BBG managers. A comment was left about one of them. We call these bullet proof executives “Éminences Grises.” They are in fact all “The Big Kahunas.” At the same time, we know Mr. Mendes very, very well. It appeared earlier that he would like to be Chief of Everything Officer (CEO) but got knocked out of the running by John Lansing.
“It looks like the fixes aren’t working. This is a full-fledged meltdown of essential systems. Is it a bug, an attack, poor system maintenance? Does the Board know what is going on? Congress? The White House?” — A Voice of America Broadcaster, Dec. 30, 2015
With his fellow executives skilled in putting on a teflon coating and protecting themselves from any fallout from this latest outage, it is more than likely that at the employee level Mr. Mendes also doesn’t have a whole lot of friends, except perhaps for a few OCB employees. He might not have them now among senior agency officials either. As the saying goes, “If you are going to run with the bull(s), you better not trip.”
Mr. Mendes hasn’t tripped. This major systems failure has him cart-wheeling, flailing and rolling among the hooves while his colleagues among BBG executives have sought cover. Remember, it takes more than one man to ruin the agency’s reputation on Capitol Hill, get the agency to violate government laws and regulations for years, waste taxpayers’ dollars, expose the agency to a $400 million class action discrimination lawsuit and to a complaint in the UN Human Rights Council, and inspire critical articles in foreign press and protests from Russian and other human rights leaders.
Longtime BBG executives who share the blame for all of these mishaps and many others should leave the agency. Under the circumstances, perhaps it would also serve Mr. Mendes well to consider his exit strategy before more of the agency’s IT infrastructure weaknesses are exposed, or the system unravels even further.
It seems things could get worse, not better in the agency’s IT world. We recall stories from what used to be the Voice of America (VOA) newsroom where computers weren’t interfaced with compatible software, requiring employees to transit from one workstation to another in order to accomplish certain production requirements.
And also a Network Control Center (NCC) which in the past has had problems getting programs to their proper destinations or in some cases, not out of the Cohen Building altogether.
Add to this, comments about layering IT systems on top of each other raising compatibility issues among the components.
Thus, Mr. Mendes, a self-styled “Big Kahuna” is now under siege, while those who were there before are still here now and allowed it to happen, are remarkably silent, leaving him to hang. In this scenario, what does the Big Kahuna do? Naturally, he puts out a memo.
Aside from his attempt to explain the technical parameters of the issue, some other comments are revealing:
Mr. Mendes: “I want you to know that the TSI team and our vendor are working around the clock to resolve the problem and hope that offers you some solace.”
We recall from an older memo on a past IT problem in which Mr. Mendes directed his staff to “keep me informed every 15 minutes.”
As an end user, there probably isn’t much solace to be had. Face it, you have a program to get on the air and this disaster inhibits your ability to make that happen. You already know that the agency gets slammed for not being up to the competition, but at least you’ve tried with the resources at your disposal. Now, the resources got disposed of, in a manner of speaking. Are you a happy camper? We tend to think not so much. You and every other broadcaster and production person in the Cohen Building want the Big Kahuna’s head on a pike, and the heads of other Big Kahunas as well.
Mr. Mendes: “It would not be productive, at this time, to go over the reasons why we find ourselves in this situation. I personally promise you a full report on the series of circumstances that led to this problem so that you fully understand the situation.”
We all know what this means. The villagers are at the gate. Employees already know the most important part of the situation: the system is not working. Remember the quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The emails are flying and the Big Kahuna’s name is all over them, and not in a flattering way, while the names of directors, deputy directors and chiefs of staff are nowhere to be seen. He’s looking mighty bad in front of his cohorts who have been waiting for him to stumble. We’ve all seen the Big Kahuna in action: the pontification, the bombast, the pompous self-indulgent I, me, mine narrative. This fiasco is a topper: it leaves him revealed as not so hot at what he’s in charge of. Where’s the system redundancy? Where is the fail-safe? Where is the system back-up?
And you can bet everyone in the building can’t wait to see his “full report” if it ever sees the light of day. By the way, has anyone seen the report requested of International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) Deputy Director Jeff Trimble to explain why the 2012 management crisis at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) happened under the IBB’s watch? Did anyone seen any public memos explaining the IBB’s violations of government contracting rules and regulations which have now led to the $400 million class action discrimination lawsuit? We have not heard from the other Big Kahunas or Éminences Grises. May be Mr. Lansing can make them to talk.
Mr. Mendes: “Meanwhile, please accept my personal apologies for this serious event. It is very distressing and equally humbling.”
Personal apologies don’t mean much when you miss production deadlines. To be sure, for Mr. Mendes it’s distressing. A big spotlight is shining on him and his every move. BBG Watch gets a lot of read. If Mr. Mendes isn’t out there shopping his resume already, he must be trying to pull himself together and get it out there. With this latest roiling disaster, that resume is looking a little shabby right now. Mr. Mendes is between a rock and a hard place with not much sympathy to be had, while those who share the largest burden of blame for the agency’s failures once again are getting off scot free. How do they do it?
Job One for him and for them is not fixing the problem, because they can’t. Job One is finding a workable exit strategy that has him and them hightailing it out of the Cohen Building, ASAP.
And when that cloud of dust rising from their exit appears, the Big Kahunas (plural) will have perhaps made their own memorable contribution to the agency as:
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
But will they leave?
With perhaps one minor exception, it has not happened so far under Mr. Lansing’s regime. Quite the contrary, some seem to have been given expanded duties. The other Big Kahunas have been with the agency much longer than anyone who may have left BBG recently and much, much longer than Mr. Mendes. He could not possibly be alone responsible for the big mess the agency is in, but it certainly appears now that Mr. Mendes will alone get the blame.
Speaking of Which
Here is a “blast from the past” provided by a source:
“PBS’ Automation Efforts Stall: Member stations resist high-cost, over-sold ACE technology,” By Glen Dickson, Broadcasting & Cable, October 7, 2006.
In reading this article, one gets an eerie and uncomfortable feeling it that history may be repeating itself in a new iteration.
Indeed, it may be far along in the process of repeating itself.
Did “The Big Kahunas” (plural) find and show this article to BBG Chairman Jeff Shell before he appointed Mr. Mendes as interim CEO prior to Mr. Lansing coming on the scene?
Now as then, the operative IT approach appears to be make changes – big changes – without discussions with end users and worry about the fallout later.
Later is now.
Another BBG Meeting
A passing mention of the December 2015 BBG meeting:
These meetings are sort of like Einstein’s definition of insanity on a repeating loop: doing/saying the same things over again expecting a different result. Perhaps the BBG should adopt this as its motto.
We’ve heard it all before: what a great job the BBG is doing and the agency doesn’t need congressional reform legislation.
BBG members don’t seem to appreciate that this mantra doesn’t have much resonance outside the Cohen Building.
Ironically, the BBG meets its own definition of “affluenza:” having no sense being accountable or responsible for its actions and being detached from reality.
The BBG claims that it has a “reform plan.” To all outward appearances, it does not. Sure, they mouth the word “reform” but it isn’t real. Instead, it’s paper-shuffling reorganization: for example, lumping a group of unrelated functions under someone who probably knows little to nothing about how to make diverse groups and office cultures communicate and work together.
We aren’t impressed with this cobbled together exercise.
If there is any consequence at all to what Mr. Lansing is doing, it has the net effect of making things worse under the same people who are directly responsible for making the agency: Mission Irrelevant.
All that we see is names and diagrams being switched around on the agency’s organizational chart and staffing pattern.
As a result, the agency goes into January 2016 in worse shape than where it was in January 2015.
Here’s the real deal:
Reform legislation is needed now more than ever.
And add to that, the people to make reform work, because they are not in the Cohen Building at present.
Happy New Year 2016 – same as it ever was inside the Wilbur J Cohen Federal Building.