Voice of America's offices in Washington.

Voice of America's offices in Washington. Kurt Pacaud/Shutterstock.com

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Reshaping of U.S. Global Media Agency Called Largely Successful

State Department watchdog found lapses in staff communication and posting of editorials.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media, which until last August was known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, has made solid progress in implementing its new, more centralized, governance structure, a watchdog found.

But the federal organization that supervises the Voice of America, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe and other regional foreign-language news services still needs to improve internal communication with staff and better formalize the politically delicate handling of editorials that reflect U.S. policy, the State Department inspector general said in a report released on Tuesday.

Auditors “found broad consensus among the USAGM board members, directors of the broadcasting entities, and USAGM senior staff that shifting executive authorities to a CEO position represented a clear improvement in agency governance,” the IG wrote, noting that 84% of survey respondents approved. All viewed the change, which scaled back the bipartisan board’s role as more advisory, “as not merely positive but transformational in its effect on the agency.” Incumbent CEO John Lansing, who came on in September 2015, won “praise for his collegial approach, managerial skill, knowledge of multimedia organizations, and dedication to the agency’s mission.”

Lansing was commended for hiring a public affairs specialist with experience in supporting change management at another federal agency, creating an additional full-time public affairs position dedicated to internal communications, and holding annual employee “town halls.”

On the downside, the 1,454-employee agency, particularly the Voice of America, “did not effectively implement a new standard procedure for producing VOA editorials that present U.S. government policies,” the IG added. “By long-standing practice, USAGM's Office of Policy drafted editorials for VOA and cleared them with the [State] Department. However, in July 2018, USAGM and the department discussed a new policy with the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the Bureau of International Information Programs to draw on existing interviews and department-generated material to produce this editorial content,” which would lighten the workload.

However, the watchdog said, “managers did not clearly communicate the policy to affected staff or develop an implementation plan to assign responsibilities and tasks. As a result, USAGM provided no editorials to VOA between early September and the end of October 2018. Failure to communicate the policy to affected staff or develop an implementation plan undermined the agency’s ability to implement its new policy successfully,” the IG said.

Though all five of the agency’s broadcast entity heads said the CEO respected their networks’ editorial independence and journalistic standards set forth in the agency’s legislation (commonly referred to as “the firewall,”) several expressed concerns that the amended law potentially reduces firewall protections.

Not all the CEO’s information reached staff, the auditors found, and the “shifting governance structure since 2015 contributed to employee uncertainty about the agency’s direction.” Some internal policy and procedural documents are outdated, the report noted, and, despite some progress on addressing persistent workforce tensions, the agency “still failed to provide annual performance reviews for all employees.”

The IG made five recommendations for improving decision making, communication and resource allocation. Agency managers agreed with all five, but defended its actions on the question of posting editorials explaining U.S. policy. Delays in postings were due to the need to retrain staff, and USAGM did consult with State, the letter from Lansing said. “We are concerned that a reader might incorrectly draw inferences from the OIG narrative that the agency took unilateral action on editorial policy or that the agency views publishing editorials as a staff burden.”

Image via Kurt Pacaud/Shutterstock.com.