Broadcasting Board of Governors: All Along The Watchtower – The Federalist

VOA building in Washington, D.C.by The Federalist

A considerable amount of howling has been coming from the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and their International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) bonus-mongers.  The reason for the howling: reports by BBG Watch regarding bonuses, promotions and reorganization.
 
Somehow the BBG, IBB and other senior staff seem to have forgotten that they are public officials.  They need to be reminded who they are working for and that they are not a power unto themselves, as they most certainly like to think they are.  They are paid from American taxpayer money.  Worse, they spend American taxpayer money.  What they do – or don’t do – in their official capacity is open to scrutiny and criticism, particularly when the agency’s record of “performance” requires it.  Unfortunately, it would seem that these same officials have the same level of contempt for the American taxpayer as they exhibit toward the agency’s employees, both staff and contractors.  They might also be of the mindset to go into the BBG chairman’s office, sit behind his desk and put their feet up as a demonstration of contempt – contempt for authority – all authority – above their rank.
 
Part of the howling also has to do with the fact that these same officials are not used to being under such scrutiny.  It’s been absent and is long overdue.  It is made all the more pressing as the agency is poised to spend even more millions of US taxpayer dollars on its seriously flawed “flim flam strategic plan.”  Enough is enough.
 
No matter what these officials do or want to do, anything they intend to do is likely to invite even more scrutiny.  Sound advice to the Third Floor of the Cohen Building would be to put a cork on the ranting and take your medicine.  And get used to being held to a standard other than the usual self-serving, self-congratulatory “press releases” that the agency puts out periodically trying to justify its existence.
 
Speaking of which:
 
The Obama administration wants to do some consolidation and reorganization of its own.  We’re in a national election cycle and people outside the Beltway want to see something done to reduce the size of the Federal Government.  There is a lot of antipathy outside the Beltway toward the Federal Government.  People see it as wasteful and unresponsive to their needs – two categories that the BBG and IBB seem to excel in.  People outside the Beltway don’t know what the place does and don’t care.  What they don’t know, they don’t like.  They don’t see the place as having a material impact on their day-to-day.  It doesn’t put large numbers of Americans to work.  It doesn’t put food on the table.  It doesn’t help put their kids through school.  It doesn’t reduce rising costs on daily necessities.  It doesn’t provide for the national defense.
 
This makes the BBG/IBB vulnerable and expendable.  It is ripe for the picking.  The current administration – caught up in the national election cycle – can make a production out of eliminating it altogether or absorbing it into some other agency, in order to demonstrate for short-term political traction, that it is doing something to eliminate waste in the Federal Government.
 
In today’s world, it’s all about timing, opportunity and perception.  And the timing is bad for the BBG/IBB.  Among other things, the agency has demonstrated itself to be the poorest of poor performers in the annual survey of Federal agencies and has institutionalized and solidified that position.  It is not one of the best places to work in the Federal Government.  What is it?
 
“One of the worst organizations in the Federal Government.”
 
It has assiduously earned that reputation.  
 
It has intentionally constructed, expanded upon and institutionalized that reputation.  
 
It deserves that representation.
 
So, what to do with our poor performer?  There are a couple of scenarios which come to mind.
 
One would be USAID (the Agency for International Development) which has a language component.  Plus, it’s part of the State Department which already has a tepid relationship with the BBG.  If anything, being absorbed into USAID could result in making it more difficult for the BBG/IBB to slip and slide its way with its business-as-usual paradigm.  Nothing would serve the interests over at State better than to clip the wings of the BBG operation particularly among those who believe that “public diplomacy” is an oxymoron.
 
Another possibility would be: the Department of Defense (DOD).  One can really hear the howling now.  However, the fact of the matter is the origins of the VOA were in the War Department, Office of War Information, during World War II.  So, there’s a history, a connection.  Today, DOD runs a variety of multi-language operations.  It certainly has a need for a resource of trained linguists and it has its Armed Forces Network.  Plus, it is at work establishing itself on the property that already has the VOA Greenville transmitter sites.  A perfect scenario, a perfect opportunity, a different culture.  No more BBG.  No more IBB.  And with new bosses, maybe a higher standard of performance.
 
Of course, the doomsday scenario would be to eliminate the BBG/IBB altogether.  That may prove to be a bit more difficult, but not impossible.  As we keep reminding the BBG/IBB: very, very few people outside the Beltway would miss the agency if it were to disappear tomorrow.  Keep in mind that the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy just went good-bye and it was around almost as long as VOA.  Things change.  Things happen.  Things can be made to happen.
 
Speaking of disappearing acts:
 
One of our concerns is the extent to which the BBG has ceded its authority to the IBB.  Certain members of the Board appear to have distanced themselves from their roles and have absented themselves from Board meetings.
 
One’s physical presence speaks volumes.  It demonstrates commitment, especially if one follows up with getting to the heart of various agency problems on all levels.  Physical presence also speaks to keeping an eye on what the senior career staff is up to, what they are doing or what they are not doing.
 
To outward appearances, not doing these things is a lapse in carrying out duties and responsibilities with which Board members have been charged with as presidential appointees.  If there is any agency that needs greater oversight and accountability, this is it.  It is not enough to put matters in the hands of the IBB or a “chief executive officer.”  That doesn’t get the job done with the degree and extent of dysfunction existent inside the Cohen Building.  It also raises the question of why we need the Board in the first place?
 
All of these things make for the kinds of conditions that bode for absorbing the agency’s mission into another entity, hopefully one with a greater sense of accountability to the American taxpayers and a better record of performance.
 
No attempted consolidation – no huge bonuses – no redistribution of assignments among the same cast of managers – no greasy IBB sales pitch – no attempt at rosy “happy talk” by members of the BBG/IBB – no amount of wishful thinking – is going to change the agency from what it has become and the depths to which it has fallen.
 
One should not have confidence in the grand schemes of the BBG/IBB.  They have reduced US international broadcasting to the category of an also-ran.  The actions necessary to restore this effort will not come from within the Cohen Building and cannot be accomplished so long as the current embedded group of bonus-mongers remains in place.
 
As Secretary of State Clinton declared, “We are losing the information war.”
 
These are the people who are losing the information war: members of the BBG, their IBB staff and other senior agency officials.
 
They are not going to change their ways.
 
Time to find them something else to do and preferably somewhere else to do it.
 
The Federalist
January 2012
 
 

One Comment

  1. Ted Lipien says:

    This is a very thought provoking article from The Federalist.

    The Federalist is right that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, is in deep crisis and is unable to reform itself.

    The Federalist’s suggested solutions are intriguing. U.S. international broadcasting does, however, contribute to national defense; it makes the need for using U.S. military force abroad less likely by contributing to expanding media freedom and democratic change. Secretary Clinton used the term “information war.” But as she has observed, we are losing this war. The BBG is largely responsible. It has been unable to convince the American public that it has a national security role. In fact, it does the opposite. It cuts broadcasts to Russia and China.

    U.S. international broadcasting does need a strong U.S. government sponsor. As The Federalist rightly points out, most Americans don’t understand how these broadcasts improve their lives or make them more secure. A powerful sponsor, whose mission is understood and accepted, can be very helpful if it does not interfere with the journalistic mission. The BBG has been by far the worst and the most ineffective sponsor. Even its name is confusing and it has no political pull in Washington.

    Some other associations, however useful, do have PR implications, especially abroad. Both the State Department and the Pentagon are not perceived as compatible with journalistic freedom, and yet the largest ever public demonstration against censorship at the Voice of America took place under the BBG’s watch. The BBG’s emphasis on commercial audience-size considerations and its programs cuts can be just as dangerous to journalistic freedom and human rights reporting as the former intereference by the State Department. USIA was a good compromise before it was abolished, as long as the VOA Charter protections of journalistic independence were enforced. The Federalist’s USAID idea is interesting, but a new public diplomacy agency might be a better solution. Whether creating a new agency now is politically feasible is another issue.

    Creating another international/domestic NPR-like or CNN-like structure may be appealing to some journalists, but as BBG Watch has been warning, it risks putting important national security assets in the hands of unaccountable corporate officials, the same ones who are responsible for the current crisis at the BBG. Such a structure would receive no public support and would be highly controversial. U.S. International broadcasting would have no sponsor. The Congress and the American public would not have much influence over such an entity, just as they don’t control what NPR choses to put on the air. U.S. international broadcasting would no longer be under public ownership or represent all of America to the world.

    What we need is a creative new solution that reflects what the American people and the Congress want U.S. international broadcasting to be. These new ideas have to come from outside of the BBG.

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