A Costly Slice of Pizza Spin from Taxpayer-Supported Broadcaster
FreeMediaOnline.org September 6, 2010 — In an unusual case of government insider expose, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) employee Kim Andrew Elliott reported in his private blog that the taxpayer-supported Federal agency in charge of US international broadcasting, including television and radio programs to the Middle East — which in the past aired views of Holocaust deniers — is no longer one of the very worst Federal workplaces in terms of employee satisfaction, and presumably the worst-managed. It is, however, still at the very bottom of the list — the fact which the BBG employee subtly points out at the end of his article.
Dr. Elliott, who posts a disclaimer that the views expressed on his private website “are his own and not necessarily those (in fact probably are not those) of his employer, the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, or its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors,” titled his post: “According to employee survey, BBG is no Surface Transportation Board,” suggesting perhaps an improvement in employee morale at one of the worst-managed Federal agencies. This may have been on his part a smart way to avoid problems with his employer by highlighting a dubiously positive news while at the same time exposing the dysfunctional state of the BBG and the lack of reforms by the newly appointed Board members.
In July 2010, Dr. Elliott published an op-ed in The New York Times, Radio Free Bureaucracy, pointing out duplication, mismanagement and waste of taxpayer money in US international broadcasting operations run by the BBG. His New York Times op-ed article does not explain the real reasons behind the existance of multiple bureaucracies and competing brand names within the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG’s organizational chart resembles an extra-extra large pizza supreme, with US taxpayers paying for extra toppings of bureaucrats, personnel offices, public relations specialists, and other administrative staff at each individual BBG-created entity and at the previously established Cold War era semi-private broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
Millions of dollars are spent each year to pay for public relations campaigns, conferences, and travel of BBG members and their executive staff to such exotic locations as Prague, Dubai, and Miami. Dr. Elliott did not go into such details in his New York Times op-ed article, but he did point out that “the BBC World Service keeps its audience listening on an annual budget of $420 million. The United States spends close to twice as much on international broadcasting — $757 million per year.”
Even though it outspends the BBC by the ratio of almost two to one, the BBG’s worldwide audience is far lower even at the official BBG figures, which are believed to be inflated by the executive staff in an attempt to make themselves look good to their bosses, the White House, and members of Congress. ProPublica.org, a nonprofit investigative journalism website, reported that a study commissioned by the U.S. government concluded that Alhurra, Arab-language television to the Middle East managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) fails to meet basic journalistic standards and is seen by few.
Rather than maintaing a BBC-like single and powerful US broadcasting station for international audiences, the previous Board members had created a number of privately-run broadcasting entities to benefit private contractors, including their friends and associates, at the cost of millions of dollars to US taxpayers, while at the same time eliminating or reducing Voice of America broadcasting services to countries like Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
VOA is by far the best known and the most respected brand name in US international broadcasting, but since it is part of the Federal government, BBG members could not easily control it or find positions for their friends at VOA. Most of the previous and current BBG members have no journalistic experience and are usually political party loyalists. One of the current BBG members, Michael P. Meehan, had been accused of shoving a journalist who tried to pose a question to Massachusetts Democratic US Senate candidate Martha Coakley. The incident did not convince President Obama to withdraw Mr. Meehan nomination to the Board, which is charged, among other things, with supporting media freedom worldwide.
The BBG executive staff, which is supposed to execute orders from the Board, often pushes forward its own agenda and has had a large share of blunders over the years. In 2008, BBG executives had eliminated VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just days before the Russian military attack on Georgia and had plans to shut down VOA radio broadcasts in Georgian. They also had put in place policies to force experienced VOA journalists into retirement. BBG executives claim that these are cost-saving measures while at the same time beefing up several private broadcasting entities, each one of which has its own costly administrative bureaucracy. Free Media Online has learned that recently a VOA executive was suggesting to an experienced older female radio broadcaster in the Russian Service that it was time for her to leave her job.
Such practices have allowed VOA and BBG executives to bring on board their friends as private contractors and consultants. As a result, editorial standards are weakened and the American public loses control over what is being broadcast in its name to audiences overseas. Alhurra was created and programs favorable to the views of Holocaust deniers happened after the previous BBG members had eliminated all Voice of America broadcasts in Arabic.
Dr. Elliott does points out at the end of his recent blog post that according to The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government website: “BBG is 32 of 34 among small agencies, but up 13% from last year. The Surface Transportation Board is number one.”
Missing from Dr. Elliott’s post is any mention of the past attempts by the BBG and the Voice of America (VOA) executive staff to bribe employees into giving them a higher rating on the Federal Employee Satisfaction Survey. In December 2009, one of our regular Free Media Online contributors commented on this Federal survey fraud at the BBG. We are reposting it here in full.
The BBG has long been considered one of the worst managed Federal agencies. The current Bush-era members of the bipartisan Board in charge of U.S. international broadcasting are expected to be replaced soon by President Obama’s nominees who now await confirmation by the U.S. Senate. (You would not know it if you open the BBG website.) [President Obama’s bipartisan appointees to the BBG have now been in office for several months but have not instituted any significant reforms or made top management changes at the BBG.]
As new BBG members are getting ready to take their positions, the executives responsible for such journalistic and public relations disasters as airing of Holocaust denial propaganda on Alhurra television and discrimination against foreign-born journalists at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (a case now pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg) have been busy making themselves look good to their soon-to-be bosses.
But rather than to improve their management style, the BBG/VOA executive staff used the well-tried method of buying votes that goes back, well, all the way to the Roman times.
“Give them bread and games and they will vote for you.”
We hasten to add that this was not an election fraud, which the last time we checked is still a felony, but a Federal survey fraud. The goal was to make the management look good in a Federal survey that measures employee satisfaction.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) relies on the accuracy and impartiality of these employee surveys to make important decisions about personnel policies. The BBG/VOA executives undermined this process not only at their own agency but for the entire Federal government. Survey results at BBG/VOA can no longer be compared to results at other U.S. government agencies which don’t engage in bribing employees to encourage them to participate.
Giving away prizes is a not-too-subtle form of influencing how employees will vote. Ironically, the same executives, who have no problem ignoring government regulations when they apply to them, have been actively engaged in firing VOA journalists for minor time-and-attendance transgressions. They treat journalists who need to work irregular hours and move around to get their stories as bureaucrats tied to their desks.
What we want to know is whether in addition to pizza, the BBG/VOA executives also provided beer. God forbid if they did, because that would also be against Federal regulations unless they granted themselves a special exemption.
If the soon-to-be active new BBG members in charge of the U.S. international broadcasting empire will not be able to change the management culture at their Agency, we suggest that they pay for regular pizza and beer parties for the BBG and VOA employees. If nothing changes under the new Board, we might as well really go back to the Roman Empire ways of keeping the masses happy.
The following commentary is from The Federalist, one of our regular bloggers who reports on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA).
Down The Path Called Dysfunctional
Just when you thought that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA) couldn’t become any more dysfunctional than they already are, comes the following:
The VOA Director, Dan Austin, recently issued an email regarding the results of the 2009 Human Capital Survey. This is the annual survey mandated by Congress of Federal agencies, a snapshot of how the employees of the Federal workforce feel about the agencies they work in. In odd-numbered years, the survey is conducted by each Federal agency. In even-numbered years, the survey is conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), even though some Federal agencies, including BBG/VOA contract with OPM to conduct the survey in the even-numbered years.
At the outset, Austin crows about the increased level of participation in the 2009 survey…up to 58 percent as opposed to the 35 percent in 2008. Austin goes on to make a vague reference to “improvements” in some areas, but key issues, including leadership (i.e., Austin, the BBG and the rest of the senior agency officials) remain areas of concern.
What Austin doesn’t say in his email is that senior agency leadership offered a prize for the agency element with the most participants. That prize is…
A pizza party.
A pizza party?!?
This is quite revealing of the senior VOA leadership attitude toward the Human Capital Survey and by extension, the agency’s employees.
The attitude is quite clear: the senior leadership sees the survey as a trivial, nuisance exercise and the employee workforce as if it were a group of children.
Whatever “improvements” have been claimed in Austin’s email, it is evident that even with a sophomoric attempt at “bribing” employees with a pizza party reward, the real numbers of positive direction are insignificant…and are made even more watered down when measured against the increased participation.
The heart of any survey of this kind are what are commonly referred to as “core issues;” namely, how the execution of the agency’s mission is perceived and where the employees see themselves now and in the future. In view of the increasingly bizarre behavior of its senior officials, employees should be concerned.