In defense of Broadcasting Board of Governors

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG LogoThe Bureaucracy at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, centered largely within the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), but also within the higher echelons of the Voice of America (VOA), has launched recently an unprecedented behind the scenes attack on individual BBG members and the authority of the whole Board while continuing to ignore the Board’s directives on such issues for examples as curbing wasteful international travel by non-journalists and many others.

The Bureaucracy’s attempts to marginalize the Board continue, but their sneak attack in comments to the OIG on Governor Victor Ashe, Governor Michael Meehan and other BBG members has clearly backfired. Recent articles in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and National Review Online have changed the focus of criticism from the BBG and its members to the IBB Bureaucracy led by Director Richard Lobo.

Both liberal and conservative media outlets defended Ambassador Victor Ashe for exposing mismanagement and questioning IBB bureaucrats about their poor performance. These articles also praised Board members for standing up to the Bureaucracy, which had failed them on the crisis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and for appointing a distinguished journalist and media executive Kevin Klose as RFE/RL’s new acting president and CEO. Klose’s appointment is seen as a sign of the Board reasserting its authority and begining to question the IBB staff’s role and recommendations. We learned, for example, that one senior IBB staffer tried recently to get Board members to endorse publicly a discredited RFE/RL manager. They wisely refused.

In an unprecedented turn of events, rank and file BBG employees and their union, American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, came to the defense of BBG’s Republican governor Victor Ashe and the Board itself. While journalists and other rank and file employees fully agree that the agency is dysfunctional, they know where the problem is. As noted in U.S. media reports, they now see the Board as their potential ally against the real culprit — the enormous Bureaucracy that has grown over the years through elimination of broadcasting services and is now trying to get full control of the agency. This Bureacracy is responsible for dismal employee morale at the BBG — the worst among federal agencies at this worst-managed federal agency, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee surveys.

We have heard rumors that IBB Director Richard Lobo is trying to get the White House to give him another political job. What he really had wanted before was to be a BBG member, but the White House could not oblige him at that time and gave him the IBB directorship instead. As a presidential appointee, he could have helped the Board make the agency more functional, but he also could do nothing and BBG members could not replace him or force him to act otherwise. He chose to do very little. To the surprise and dismay of many, he kept the executive staff composed of the worst managers in the federal government, rewarded them with outstanding performance bonuses and approved their extensive international travels while they kept proposing elimination of more and more broadcasting services and journalists.

Lobo and his senior executives then told OIG inspectors that the dysfunction was the fault of the Board, not theirs. Gullible OIG inspectors believed them, but the OIG report was so incomplete, biased, unprofessional and outrageous that it produced a media backlash. Thanks to media scrutiny, the truth is now finally beginning to emerge. What nearly all rank and file BBG employees have known for years is being reported on and discussed outside of the agency.

The problem is not the Board, although some of the former absentee members must share the blame. It is the Bureaucracy, which needs to be drastically trimmed down and brought under control.

We think the BBG should appoint not a CEO, who would be easily co-opted by the Bureaucracy, but a Board’s Chief of Staff who would make sure that the Board’s decisions are carried out. The International Broadcasting Bureau should be abolished, some of it’s functions eliminated, others divided among the broadcasting entities, and some of the key ones put directly under the BBG. The Board should resist at all cost bureaucratic centralization, which is what the current IBB executive staff wants. If the IBB cannot be abolished, it must be brought under control.

Bigger bureaucracy is not a better bureaucracy. As one Board member put it, the Broadcasting Board of Governors needs to become a small, lean agency that provides general direction and a lot of support to news and information entities that specialize in knowing their audiences and know what they are doing far better than the army of entrenched IBB bureaucrats waging a war on the authority of presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed BBG members. The Board, as divided and unwieldy as it may seem at times, is still under the current legislative arrangement the only hope against this media freedom and journalistic agency being completely taken over and destroyed by self-serving bureaucrats.

The following commentary was written by a longtime BBG employee.

An alternative view of the BBG Board

By a long-time employee AND taxpayer

We’ve heard the part-time BBG Board described as anything from dysfunctional (OIG Report) to defunct (former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in testimony to Congress.) In no way does this diminish the problems facing the Board of Governors but I suggest there is another and somewhat more believable way of characterizing the management mess. Maybe the real problem is that nobody in the current full-time management of the BBG or, for that fact, VOA listens to the Board when it does make a decision.

Any employee aware of how the BBG, IBB and VOA actually works knows there is a culture of “I hear you, but that doesn’t mean I’ll do what you ask” permeating the Cohen Building.  The culture extends to the motto we’ve long heard.  “Quality is NOT job one!  Keeping our jobs, getting promotions and year-end bonuses is what we do best; expanding the bureaucracy is second and using a heavy-handed approach to dealing with the grunts who do the actual work is third.”  Quality, we hope but we’re not certain, is on the list somewhere.

You can almost hear them say:  “We’re not saying you (the grunts) are wrong.  We said we’re blaming you.”  We’ll take credit when things go right but you’ll be blamed when things don’t.  Lately, not too many things are going well so guess who deals with the fallout?  The grunts are fired while the bureaucracy forms more committees and hires more advisors to stall meaningful reforms.  

​We’ve got more than enough Generals already.  What we need are boots on the ground.

​Let’s look at who is on the board and you decide if they have the qualifications to run a $730 million operation.
 
 
 
​Chairman Michael Lynton who runs the Sony Corporation – yes.
​Michael Meehan, who began and runs a well-respected and enormously successful Public Relations business in California – yes.

​Victor Ashe, who ran Knoxville, Tennessee as Mayor for four terms and who served this country of Ambassador to Poland  – yes.​

​Susan McCue, president of Message Global Partners, a strategic advocacy firm she founded in 2008 – yes.

​Dennis Mulhaupt, the Founder and Managing Partner of Commonwealth Partners Inc., which provides advisory services to Philanthropic Institutions and families – yes.

​Tara Sonenshine, who, as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, represents Secretary of State
John Kerry – yes.​

Three positions on the nine member Board are vacant.

​That is enough talent with management know-how to get things done.  Look at their individual track records.  But why don’t they?  Rocks have been hurled at the Board for not doing its job well.  I suggest the blame should be shared if not transferred to the “silent service”.

Could it be the Board is working with a bureaucracy that’s way out of its league. To their credit, they are first-rate bureaucrats but are they up to the task of dealing with professionals who have made their mark in the real world?

And while the part-time board does, at times, try to do what is best for this Agency, the full-time, well entrenched bureaucrats do what’s in THEIR best interests and not in the interests of the taxpayer or fulfilling the real mission of U.S. International Broadcasting.

While these bureaucrats push for a full-time CEO as a panacea for fixing what they see as broken, here’s something to consider:  give the Chairman of the BBG Board the authority to make binding decisions, in consultation with the rest of the Board.  That would force the bureaucrats to do as they are told, and give the Board the ability to replace the non-responsive.

​It takes almost an act of Congress to replace someone at the level of Senior Executive Service or at the GM 15 level but we wonder why this Board doesn’t exercise the power and authority given it in the Broadcasting Act that created this monster 15 years ago.  If you can’t fire them, put enough pressure on them to do what they are paid to do which is to follow instructions and do their job, not come up with excuses for why they can’t.  If they won’t, the heat from the Board should be enough of a signal to leave.

​Maybe the bureaucrats can’t be fired but they can be reassigned. That would be a powerful incentive to do what is right instead of what is convenient and self-serving.  Let’s share the spotlight and aim it at the bureaucrats as well as the BBG Board.

The bureaucrats do as they please.  The Board is ignored.  
The response “I hear you” when listening to the Board should be replaced with “I hear you, understand you and I will follow through.”

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