Report blasts foreign broadcasting board as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘ineffectual’

Joe Davidson
Columnist January 22, 2013

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) oversees U.S. government broadcasting to foreign countries. Through those programs, people abroad get news of the day and gain insight into the United States.

Uncle Sam should hope the listeners don’t also gain insight into the BBG, because it is one crazy place.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

More than one study has demonstrated that it’s a terrible place to work. The latest is an Office of Inspector General’s report released last week. It depicts an agency with a dedicated staff but with a governing board that is incompetent, useless and perhaps fatally broken.

And with unusual candor, the inspector general places much of the blame on one member of the board — Victor Ashe, yet Ashe has strong union support. One labor organization said a better subject for study is why the BBG “continually ranks as the worst managed federal government agency.”

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1812 called the report a “hatchet job” and urged Congress to investigate why the inspector general did its investigation. The AFGE said the inspector general was “so brazen in its attempt to besmirch a person’s character.”

Local 1812’s president, Timothy Shamble, said Ashe has been “very gracious and nice to the rank and file.” Added Greg Burns, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1418: “He actually listens to the union’s insight. . . . None of the other governors take any interest.”

But Ashe isn’t the main issue. Whatever problems can be linked to him, there are other structural defects that prevent the BBG from operating efficiently.

Calling the BBG “dysfunctional,” the report said “a part-time Board cannot effectively supervise all U.S. Government-supported, civilian international broadcasting.”

In response to the report, a BBG statement said, “The report highlights the need for structural and other reforms that the BBG has been working toward.”

The response did not address Ashe. In the report, he is cited, not by name but by specific description (the report refers to the individual as a former mayor, and that description fits only Ashe), as a board member “whose tactics and personal attacks on colleagues and staff have created an unprofessional and unproductive atmosphere.”

“Board dynamics,” the report said, “are characterized by a degree of hostility that renders its deliberative process ineffectual.”

The inspector general is not alone in that view.

“Having spent two years in meetings and discussions with Victor Ashe, I think the OIG gave him a very light going over,” said S. Enders Wimbush, a former member of the board.

Ashe quickly came to his own defense. Upon learning the Federal Diary was covering the inspector general’s report, he volunteered a link to a union statement in his support. He also called the report “unwarranted, unfair and factually incorrect.”

“I feel my membership at BBG plays an important role in these difficult times for employees,” he added.

No matter who is correct about Ashe, it is clear that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is a terrible mess and not just because of this latest report. That’s a shame because the employees practice “journalism of the highest caliber,” according to the report issued by Deputy Inspector General Harold W. Geisel.

They do so despite one report after another that, when taken together, can easily lead to the conclusion that the BBG is beyond hope.

●In 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found “overlapping language services, duplication of program content, redundant newsgathering and support services, and difficulties coordinating broadcast efforts.”

●Almost four years ago, the Federal Diary wrote that the BBG could stand for “bottom of the barrel in government” because of the board’s low ranking in the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Human Capital Survey.

●In April 2010, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was quoted by Foreign Policy magazine as saying, “The BBG is the most worthless organization in the federal government.”

●A few months ago, the Federal Labor Relations Authority issued a point-by-point rejection of a BBG appeal of a 2011 arbitrator’s decision involving the anachronistic Office of Cuba Broadcasting. The office, which falls under the BBG, had dismissed employees who criticized the agency to the GAO and congressional officials.

●On the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government list for 2012, issued last month by the Partnership for Public Service, the BBG ranked last out of 22 agencies in its category. (The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

The No. 1 recommendation in the inspector general’s report is for the BBG to create a chief executive officer position. Someone needs to get control of that agency.

The main role of the board should be to protect the government journalists from interference by government officials, said Michael P. Meehan, one of the governors. The current structure, with nine part-time board members holding responsibility for the day-to-day management, just doesn’t work.

“The board, the way it is structured,” Meehan said, “it is hard to function, for sure.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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