Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War: It’s Over. We Lost. Fantasy Reform

By The Federalist

image from article

‘We’re just not countering it [Kremlin propaganda] effectively,’ Mr. Royce [Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee] told The Washington Times, asserting that the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees RFE/RL, VOA and a slate of other taxpayer-funded international news outlets, is essentially broken.” — Russia propaganda machine gains on U.S. – American lawmakers push bill to counter Putin message, By By Guy Taylor – The Washington Times – Sunday, December 27, 2015

 As we have read on BBG Watch, Jeffrey Shell, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chairman and John Lansing, BBG chief executive officer (CEO) claim that they have a “plan” to reform US Government international broadcasting.
We haven’t seen “the plan” anywhere in writing. That which can be seen can be analyzed, critiqued. For the moment, a higher state of visibility is elusive. Perhaps it exists conceptually, a figment of imagination, if you will.
On the other hand, the US Congress has a plan. It’s called H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act. This is not imaginary. It’s on paper. You can read it. You may like it. You may not like it. But you most certainly can see it.


We already know what the Shell/Lansing “plan” may look like. They oppose the key remedial actions contained in the proposed congressional legislation. Thus, one may be inclined to call the Shell/Lansing Plan:

“BBG Reform: Perpetuating Business As Usual!”

What a concept!
That’s one thing we know very, very well about this agency: the BBG may come up with some new packaging, but the contents remain the same.
Let’s keep in mind that the same cast of characters are on board: the ones who liked to talk about a “strategic plan.” As others have observed, the methodology of “strategic plan” embraced by the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is “neither strategic nor a plan.”
Because the foundation on which it rests is severely compromised.
Here are some common elements in “BBG Reform: Perpetuating Business As Usual:”

But wait, there’s more:

Failure As The Agency’s Gold Standard

Examples abound:
  • Funky, tricked up “audience research” which no one believes to be an accurate reflection of the agency’s audience, and certainly not an accurate reflection of the agency’s impact, which is what counts.
  • A perpetual place holder as one of the worst agencies in the Federal government in the annual Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee evaluation of its workplace–Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS).
  • Being routinely outclassed by other international media on breaking news, developing stories and objective content.
  • A critical, strategic meltdown in effectiveness – generally across the board but most egregious in the Arab and Muslim world and in Russia.

Face it: the BBG has to say they have a “reform plan” even when for all practical purposes they don’t. Not having a plan – real or fictional – gives a whole lot more impetus to the Congress coming up a “nuclear option:” namely, a much more severe restructuring of what constitutes US Government international media and who will be in charge of it than even the H.R. 2323 bill envisions. Read: someone other than the BBG, as in perhaps the Agency for International Development (AID) or the National Endowment for Democracy, a few of the possibilities that come to mind.

“BBG Reform: Perpetuating Business As Usual:” The Bureaucratic Merry-Go-Round

BBG Governor Matt Armstrong (Republican) said in May 2014 that some of the congressional criticism of the agency was“dated,” “overly harsh” and “not fair.” He described the H.R. 4490 (previous version of H.R. 2323) “less than inarticulate” [sic].
The May 2015 Office of Inspector General report said about the BBG: “A weak tone at the top,” “vulnerabilities in the management and oversight,” “an increased risk of fraud, waste, and abuse,” “insufficient oversight of contracts and grants,” weaknesses in financial management”, “inadequate information security,” “several management control weaknesses in administrative operations” at OCB, “management did not communicate effectively and … decision-making processes lacked transparency,” “many employees expressed fear of reprisal by management if they raised concerns.”
BBG Chair Jeff Shell (Democrat) said in response to the OIG report that the leadership problem at the board level happened before the current board took over. He also pointed out in his letter to the OIG, which was prepared by the BBG staff, that many of the problems identified in OIG reports have been solved or are being solved.
How would a highly successful and busy Hollywood executive know this unless he got this information from the BBG executive staff?
Former BBG member and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executive S. Enders Wimbush told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the BBG’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was “feeble” (November 17, 2015). He expressed support for H.R. 2323, as did former Washington Post foreign correspondent in Moscow, former National Public Radio (NPR) president and former RFE/RL president (twice) Kevin Klose (November 17, 2015). Many other former BBG members, former top-level U.S. diplomats and other distinguished Americans also expressed their support for H.R. 2323.
If problems have been solved or are being solved, how do BBG executives explain a long lasting power failure without emergency power supply that crippled many VOA broadcasts earlier this month? VOA’s December 4, 2015 “State of Fear” U.S. opinion roundup? “VOICE OF AMERICA FRENCH or VOA Agence France Presse?” (December 7, 2015), “Voice of America or Voice of Castro?” (December 18, 2015), “Is this Russian RT, SPUTNIK or something else?” (December 19, 2015),” “BBG employees ‘crippled’ by technical breakdowns ‘lose confidence’ in leaders” (December 22, 2015), “$400M class action suit may signal more trouble ahead for new BBG CEO” (December 28, 2015), and finally “Digital failure at Voice of America MONDAY PM UPDATE” (December 28, 2015).
Does this show that problems have been solved or are being solved?
On December 17, 2015, the agency distributed an announcement: “Message From BBG CEO and Director John Lansing RE Personnel Actions for Some Key Positions.”
Here we go: the latest iteration of rearranging jobs among the senior bureaucrats. In the reading, we see some of “the usual suspects” with a couple of newcomers.
Let us consider:
Jeffrey Trimble: renowned as the agency’s… “$10,000 Bonus Man,” Mr. Trimble takes over from the recently departed (as in left the agency) Rob Bole who was “Director of Global Strategy” (there’s that kiss of death term again, “strategy”). That position is to be eliminated (kiss of death). According to Mr. Lansing:
“…I’ve asked Jeff [Trimble] to lead a comprehensive review of each of the functional areas that fell under the Global Strategy umbrella, and that team will provide recommendations to me on how best to recast those units to best support the strategic priorities that I have laid out for the Agency.”
But wait a minute. We have a couple questions:
OIG Management Alert on BBG May 2015Wasn’t Mr. Trimble once tasked to write a report on the fiasco surrounding the wholesale firing of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service in Putin’s Russia in 2012? We may have missed it, but to outward appearances, that report either (a) never got written or (b) got buried so as not to see the light of day. Didn’t that crisis occur under Jeff Trimble’s watch at IBB if one does not count his then boss Dick Lobo? Isn’t Mr. Trimble an expert on Russia and RFE/RL? How many “Significant Management Weaknesses,” to use the title of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) May 2015 report on the BBG, happened during Mr. Trimble’s long tenure as one of the agency’s top executives?
But remember:
At this agency, it is always somebody else’s fault. It is never the fault of the current BBG board or top executives currently running the agency.
And –
Mr. Trimble was part of a group that went to Azerbaijan to secure the release of Khadija Ismayilova, a brave RFE/RL Azeri Service reporter who has been jailed by the government on false charges and is serving a lengthy prison sentence.
Let’s just say that we have to say that we don’t have the highest degree of confidence in Mr. Trimble. Readers of our commentaries know that we had a very dim view of him leading a BBG delegation and being involved in this kind of delicate situation. The results speak for themselves.
Later in the memo, we learn from Mr. Lansing that in January 2016 the agency will submit to Congress a “program plan” in which it will
“…establish an umbrella organizational structure titled “Management Services, which will combine the Office of Human Resources, Contracts, Security, Civil Rights, Administration, and Workforce Support and Development.”
That earns another “Wowser.”
What appears on its face is the creation of yet another monster conglomeration of the bureaucracy.
The person placed in charge of this multi-headed Hydra (since each has its own chief) is Marie Lennon.
OIG-BBG-Audit-June2014Ms. Lennon has been with the agency even longer than Mr. Trimble. At various times, she has been chief of staff to the Voice of America (VOA) director and of the Broadcasting Board of Governors/International Broadcasting Bureau (BBG/IBB). Didn’t the contracting crisis, exposed by OIG, which has now resulted in the reported $400 million class action lawsuit against the agency filed on behalf of underpaid contract employees, happen partly under their watch?
But remember:
At this agency, it is always somebody else’s fault. It is never the fault of the current BBG board or top executives currently running the agency.
Given the nature of this agency and its many shortcomings, one can reasonably deduce that this is another gesture toward perpetuating business as usual and status quo. Or perhaps raising
  • Dysfunctional
  • Defunct
  • Broken
  • Rudderless
To new, stratospheric heights.
You have to wonder.

Last But Definitely Not Least

What to our wondering (and somewhat incredulous) eyes should appear but an article by David Ensor, the former VOA director, in Foreign Policy magazine.
Here we have yet another example of promoting business as usual, as seen through Mr. Ensor’s perspective.
Similar sentiments come from David Jackson, another former VOA director.
The bottom line to both pieces is the same: stick with business as usual: one part-time board and a single CEO presiding over a perpetual state of confusion, conflicting missions and priorities.
There are no institutional checks and balances beyond the current part-time board that has failed so spectacularly, no additional institutional accountability.
This is the tried and true formula for disaster.
One presumes that the two former directors believe that VOA will win out in any battle over resources in the business as usual model.
However, should Lansing find the programs of the grantee operations such as RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and others more deserving, past experience would indicate that this tune could change very quickly.
Ironically, Mr. Ensor cites VOA audience growth to 188-million — the largest gain in MEXICO. WOW!
We have absolutely not the slightest doubt that “business as usual” as the basis for the Shell/Lansing model for “reform” of US Government international broadcasting/media is the precise formula for perpetuating failure. This is where the agency has been, is now and appears intent upon being forever.
Neither the BBG nor John Lansing needs legislation that preserves business as usual.
To the contrary, what is needed is legislation that protects the American people from an agency that has garnered a reputation for being one of the worst agencies in the Federal government, an agency that is ineffective in countering the anti-American rhetoric of Islamic jihadists and others, an agency that shows no intention of doing anything different than what it is doing now to continue to waste public funds in a fruitless pursuit to secure some measure of relevance in a world that has passed it by.
The bureaucrats of this agency relish being arrogant and defiant. It is well past the time to move them out for the damage they have done.

The Federalist

December 2015

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