BBG Watch Commentary — Investigative Report — Waste and Mismanagement
In a series of investigative reports, BBG Watch will focus on waste and mismanagement at the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau — two federal entities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
ALSO READ: Voice of America wasted estimated millions on improper contract payments, Radio Free Asia gets clean bill of health, BBG Watch, May 3, 2014.
A statement attributed to senior International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives that Voice of America (VOA) “mission critical programming is not considered an inherently governmental function” may explain a lot of what is wrong with the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) agency in charge of critical U.S. government-funded international media outreach overseas.
If Voice of America broadcasts and online news are not considered an inherently governmental function, they can be then all produced by contractors without any immediate supervision. There will be no need for federal employees at the Voice of America journalistic jobs.
The results of this cavalier dismissal of the critical importance of VOA news programs for the U.S. Government have been disastrous for VOA’s news reporting and for the impact that such news reporting has for U.S. public diplomacy and image abroad. BBG Watch has learned for example that a map posted online by the Voice of America, which showed Crimea as being no longer part of Ukraine and looking as if it now belonged to Russia, was apparently created by a contractor working without any direct supervision. The Voice of America may not have a direct U.S. public diplomacy role, but its news reporting has a public diplomacy impact for the United States because it is funded by the U.S. Congress and because of what VOA represents to audiences abroad.
A senior IBB executive and an IBB policy analyst to whom the controversial statement about mission critical programming not being considered an inherently governmental function is attributed are not believed to be members of the new three-person IBB management team put in place recently as a reform move by the BBG board. But they apparently still hold key positions within IBB.
BBG Watch was told that they have argued recently for using an external staffing agency to provide contractors who produce VOA programs in order to avoid practices IBB and VOA executives had introduced and continued for many years, which both the Office of Inspector General and IRS have recently concluded were in violation of federal law and regulations.
Apparently anybody a private firm will find will be able to produce news programs on behalf of the United States if IBB and VOA officials approve these selections. Let’s be clear about it, unlike the BBG’s semi-private, surrogate grantees, which have an entirely different status and different missions, the Voice of America represents America and speaks on America’s behalf to audiences abroad. It is not another CNN. It is not another private and commercial news organization.
The Voice of America is quite unique. It has a congressionally approved Charter which specifies its mission. Part of its mission is to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and … also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350). We do not know of any other news organization in the United States that has this U.S. government-imposed mission.
What if individuals selected by a staffing agency do not understand short-term and long-term U.S. interests abroad and produce maps that contradict U.S. foreign policy? What happens if they post online a fake interview with a foreign opposition figure, or mistranslate comments by a U.S. government official which are then used against the United States in propaganda statements by a hostile foreign power?
All of these incidents happened when VOA itself started to rely on a large number of contractors who are not always properly selected, do not have all the necessary skills, including knowledge of U.S. foreign policy, are poorly paid, exploited, and insufficiently trained and supervised. There is also the question of how the BBG, the IBB, and the VOA can be now certain that hostile foreign powers will not try to get their agents hired by VOA through a private staffing firm?
But IBB executives are proposing a remarkably simple solution: a private staffing agency will employ individuals who are then assigned to work with the Voice of America based on VOA’s needs and their skills. “Benefits and pay are the responsibility of the external firm, not BBG,” these officials reportedly said.
What is not being said is that any mistakes these loosely supervised contractors make will definitely have a tremendous impact on the United States Government and its image abroad, as seen with the posting of a fake interview, a controversial map of Crimea, a mistranslation of a former U.S. official’s comments, a video full of unchallenged North Korean propaganda, another video of a zombie Uncle Sam character attacking a Pakistani, and multiple VOA reports on the British royal family and Justin Bieber while important U.S. foreign policy news was not being covered.
For IBB executives to say that Voice of America (VOA) “mission critical programming is not considered an in inherently governmental function” is ludicrous considering the critical importance of VOA’s news mission for the U.S. Government and for overseas audiences. VOA federal employees are carefully selected and go through an exhaustive security clearance process. That is not the case with contractors, although they undergo some security checks. Under the new system, VOA federal supervisors would have even less to say as to what kind of individuals are hired as contractors.
According to BBG Watch sources, IBB officials have estimated that a private staffing agency would likely cost BBG an additional $12 million annually. Where will this money come from? The usual solution of IBB executives in the past was to eliminate VOA news programs and news programming positions while increasing the number of IBB staffers.
According to agency sources, contractors represent a huge, 35% segment of BBG’s current workforce. VOA relies on approximately 660 contractors who for all practical purposes are mostly full-time employees although the agency has the legal authority to hire only 60 Personal Services Contractors (PSCs). They others are called Purchase Order Vendors (POVs), but both OIG and IRS have determined that they are in fact PSCs. They found the agency to be in violation of the congressional limit on the number of PSCs, the Federal Acquisition Regulations, and tax laws.
We urge the Broadcasting Board of Governors to reject out of hand the suggestion of IBB executives that Voice of America (VOA) “mission critical programming is not considered an inherently governmental function.” This is a myth perpetuated by those who would like to run U.S. international media outreach like a private enterprise.
In fact, very few — mostly strictly technical VOA functions — can be described as not critical governmental jobs in terms of their real and potential impact through the production of news and information programs on U.S. foreign policy, U.S. public diplomacy, and U.S. public image overseas.
These functions, although they are journalistic in nature, are just as critical as what U.S. Foreign Service Officers do since they are associated by a vast majority of people abroad with the U.S. Government. VOA journalists are not FSOs, but their responsibilities are just as important and just as critical in a different but related area of public opinion abroad. IBB and executives cannot pretend that VOA is a private news organization. VOA’s news mistakes can be just as damaging as a Foreign Service Officer’s mistakes in explaining U.S. foreign policy to a foreign government or a foreign audience.
Journalism may not be an inherently governmental function, in fact it is not, but news journalism on behalf of the United States for audiences abroad is an inherently governmental function if it produces inaccurate or false news, a wrong explanation of U.S. foreign policy or a lack of any explanation, and in the process damages America’s image and its interests, including security interests abroad. This has already happened at the Voice of America on a number of occasions.
Hiring the right kind of people to work for VOA is an extremely serious business and should not be left in the hands of officials who do not grasp this fact. They thoughtlessly want to contract out most of such critical work to a private firm without any accountability to the U.S. Government and U.S. taxpayers who ultimately pay the bills and will have to take the blame for anything that may go wrong in the public arena.
This problem requires a holistic solution and should be left to the BBG board and the agency’s future CEO. He or she should be selected as soon possible. Also the bipartisan reform bill proposed in Congress may result in many bureaucratic IBB and VOA positions being eliminated, which could allow VOA to hire a greater number of highly skilled journalists who can continuously adapt to new job requirements in the changing technological environment. While the flexibility that the use of a limited number of contract employees is undeniable, it would have been far more beneficial for the BBG to have a similar flexibility in hiring and firing executives who have created the current unworkable system and want to perpetuate it.
BBG Watch is planning a series of investigative reports on improper use and administration of POV contracts by the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau. Please check our website for further updates.