Ambassador Ashe: Change is Urgently Needed at Broadcasting Board of Governors

Victor H. Ashe (Ambassador to Poland, 2004-2009)

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If you are like most Americans, you have never heard of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), so let me explain. The BBG is the agency of the U.S. international broadcasting effort. Through brands such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and Radio Martí among others, and with a budget of $722 million, the BBG broadcasts news of both local and international interest to those countries where independent media are either severely restricted or completely repressed. 

Unfortunately, despite this vital work, the BBG is an agency in major crisis. As former Secretary of State Clinton mentioned in her January 2013 testimony before a Congressional committee, the BBG is “dysfunctional.”  Indeed, even earlier in her term she had criticized it for being “ineffective.”

As a former three year Board member, I fully agree with Secretary Clinton’s criticisms. The BBG suffers from a lack of focus, insufficient accountability and management, poor morale and a complete lack of presence on both Capitol Hill and among policymakers such that it is often – except when a problem arises – the forgotten stepchild of American foreign policy.

But as often as not, while Secretary Clinton was free with her criticisms she was remarkably silent when it came to offering solutions and never attended a Board meeting. This was surprisingly unfortunate given that, by law, the Secretary is a voting member of the Board. So while she would have been free to attend all meetings of BGG as well as the Boards of RFE, RFA and MBN and thus would have been in an ideal position to impose order and reform to the organization, Secretary Clinton, like all of her predecessors, never did. She sent the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy which office has been vacant one third of the time since its creation. It is vacant even today on January 27, 2014.

However, given the importance of public diplomacy and international broadcasting as a “force multiplier” for our traditional diplomacy, and because the Secretary of State is after all an incredibly busy person, I propose four essential reforms to start the discussion to which I hope the Secretary, at the next or future meeting of the BBG, will lend his considerable prestige and authority.

1)  Abolish the current part-time 9 Member Board and replace it with a single agency head, confirmable by the Senate, with a status similar to the head of the Peace Corps. This official would serve at the pleasure of the President and would be accountable to him/her. The current Board is too big to serve as a general overseer and is distracted by their day jobs. By creating one position accountable to the Administration and Congress, the success or failure of America’s international broadcasting would become a government priority instead of a mere afterthought.

 

(An alternative would be to reduce the Board to three members – one Democrat, one Republican and the Secretary appointed by the President – who would serve as a sort of council of experts who would provide insights and guidance and hire the CEO)

 

2)   Create an Ombudsman to address the concerns of contract (one third of VOA) and fulltime employees. The BBG (not the grantees), in surveys, routinely shows the lowest morale of any government agency. It is axiomatic that an organization will function best when those who work for it are happy in their jobs. By creating an Ombudsman who could regularly address employee needs, work to address their concerns,  and resolve their lawsuits at Radio Martí we can improve their morale and make the services stronger from top to bottom. 

 

3)  Sharpen the distinction between VOA and the surrogate broadcasters, especially in relation to Radio Free Asia. When the VOA was created, the idea was that it would speak for America to the world, while broadcasters like RFA would serve as a more traditional news service. Unfortunately, over the years, the lines have blurred. It is time for the Secretary, if not the Congress, to step in, sharpen those lines and, where necessary, re-allocate resources accordingly. In a time of limited funding, the division of labor needs to be clear and assets deployed in line with responsibilities.

 

4)  Finally, bring Congress more closely into the process. Since Congress writes the checks, Congress should be consulted consistently and fully. It should not only be informed about what the international broadcasting community hopes to do, it should be consulted and its input regularly solicited. To that end, the BBG should appoint a top level Congressional liaison officer and also should make it standing policy to invite appropriate Hill staffers to sit in on all meetings and discussions where constitutionally appropriate. Congress should hold annual public oversight hearings and actual hearings on confirmation for all BBG presidential appointees.

These four proposals would not solve every problem in international broadcasting, but they would provide the framework through which solutions could be developed and implemented. Moreover, these proposals would assure that the BBG bureaucracy is accountable to the Administration and Congress. It would give focus to the relationship between the government’s overall foreign policy objectives and its public diplomacy efforts. 

The men and women who work in international broadcasting are hard working and patriotic professionals. It is well past the time that the Administration gives to them the time, thought and resources that their dedication merits. The American taxpayer deserves no less.

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