U.S. International Broadcasting:

Management of Middle East Broadcasting Services Could Be Improved

GAO-06-762: Published: Aug 4, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 5, 2006.

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The Broadcasting Board of Governors' (BBG) broadcasting services, Radio Sawa, and the Alhurra satellite television networks--collectively known as the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. (MBN)--currently aim to reach Arabic speakers in 19 countries and areas throughout the Middle East. Annual spending for current activities amounts to about $78 million. GAO reviewed MBN's (1) strategic planning to address competition in the Middle Eastern media market, (2) implementation of internal control, (3) procedures MBN has developed to ensure compliance with its journalistic standards, and (4) performance indicators and whether targets have been met.

MBN faces a number of competitive challenges in carrying out its mission of broadcasting in the Middle Eastern media market and has taken some steps to address them. However, MBN lacks a comprehensive, long-term strategic plan. As MBN emerges from its start-up mode and faces future challenges, a long-term strategic plan will be important. While MBN has developed financial and administrative controls to manage and safeguard its financial resources, it could take additional steps to strengthen its system of internal control. For example, the MBN has not (1) convened a meeting of its internal control board to formally develop its controls and coordinate audits, (2) completed an internal control plan, (3) completed a risk assessment to address potential risks to its operation, or (4) developed a comprehensive training program for its staff. MBN has procedures in place to help ensure its programming meets its journalistic standards. However, MBN lacks regular editorial training and has not fully implemented a comprehensive, regular program review process to determine whether its programming complies with those standards or with MBN's mission. While the BBG calls for its broadcasters to undergo an annual program review, Radio Sawa has only held one such review, and Alhurra has not completed one to date. The BBG has developed several performance indicators and targets for MBN's Radio Sawa and Alhurra services, including measures of audience size and program credibility. However, it is not clear whether the Radio Sawa and Alhurra performance targets have been met because of weaknesses in MBN's survey methodology and documentation. The BBG did not take certain steps that could have explained and increased the reliability of its estimates, such as by fully documenting its research and estimation methods, measuring the level of uncertainty surrounding its estimates, disclosing significant limitations, and consistently implementing policies and procedures for verifying data.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc. (MBN) has developed a strategic plan and has posted it to its intranet. The plan includes a mission statement, long-term strategic goals, mission objectives, and enterprise objectives.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should require that MBN develop a long-term strategic plan, which incorporates a shared vision for Alhurra and Radio Sawa operations and details specific measurable objectives and implementation strategies for the successful implementation of the goals in the plan.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to MBN, it has taken several steps to implement Grant Thornton LLP's recommendations related to strengthening its internal control environment. In response to GAO's concern regarding the lack of an internal control board, in 2008 MBN established an audit committee composed of the Chief Financial Officer, Controller, and Treasurer. In addition, in 2009 MBN created and filled a position which reports directly to the Chief Financial Officer separate from the Controller charged with internal control management.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should require that MBN implement the remaining recommendations from the Grant Thornton LLP report and require that its internal control board meet on a regular basis to coordinate MBN's single audits and oversee MBN's ongoing efforts to use sound internal control procedures.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to MBN, when updating the strategic plan and performance plans, MBN staff are asked to specifically identify and assess potential obstacles and strategies to address them. As a result, MBN staff have identified obstacles related to staffing, on air promotion, marketing, and production.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should develop a process for analyzing risk as part of strategic planning that identifies approaches to mitigate the potential obstacles to efficiently and effectively achieving MBN's operational objectives.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) has contracted with vendors to provide training on a variety of topics including internal controls and editorial procedures. For example, MBN's fiscal year 2009 training plan included custom training related to internal controls. In addition, it included several courses on instilling balance and objectivity in reporting. For example, there were courses on "Reporting and MBN's Mission," "Ensuring balance and objectivity," and "The Elements of Journalism."

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should require MBN to develop a comprehensive training program covering both internal controls and editorial procedures to meet the continuing needs of all employees.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Department of State Office of Inspector General, Middle East Broadcasting Network runs and annual program review process to evaluate the technical and journalistic aspects of its programs. Program reviews were conducted in 2007, 2008, and 2009. The process is modeled on that used by the International Broadcasting Bureau, which conducts reviews for the Voice of America Language Services, and by other grantee organizations of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The 2009 program review included analysis of both production and content, the results of research conducted by Inter-Media, and the results of a monitoring panel.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should initiate a schedule of annual program reviews for Radio Sawa and Alhurra to regularly ensure that the quality of Alhurra's broadcasts conforms to applicable standards.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Following GAO's recommendation, Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) developed a performance plan covering fiscal years 2008 through 2010. The performance plan relates MBN activities to overall BBG annual performance goals (e.g. reaching the Arabic speaking world). It also aligns MBN objectives and performance measures with Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) implementation strategies.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should implement program quality performance indicators for MBN's broadcast services, consistent with other BBG entities, to assess and compare their performance and measure the contribution of these efforts to the goals of the overall organization.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We reviewed the InterMedia and Nielsen survey methodology to collect data on media use, foreign radio listening, existing and potential listener preferences for five countries: Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Our analysis showed that Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) made progress towards compliance with the recommendation to allow for probability sampling and document the sample selection so that survey sampling errors can be calculated, where possible. Specifically, we found that 3 of the 5 samples meet the randomness criterion for a probability sample, and the other two report the use of quota sampling. For the two surveys which used quota sampling one clearly reported the quota and the reasons for it.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should require research contractors to improve the methods used in audience research to allow for probability sampling and document the sample selection so that survey sampling errors can be calculated, where possible.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We reviewed the InterMedia and Nielsen survey methodology to collect data on media use, foreign radio listening, existing and potential listener preferences for five countries: Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. These surveys generally comply with the recommendation to identify and report significant methodological limitations and the implications of them for performance indicators, including, where applicable, sampling errors, margins of error, or confidence intervals. All five of the surveys report some limitations and the intended and achieved samples. Four of the five samples are weighted and the use of weighting is documented in all four surveys. Not all limitations are clearly reported, however. Two of the five do not report their substitution counts that result from an unsystematic approach to household selection. One does not report the limitations of using a quota and snowball samples which are nonprobability samples.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should identify and report significant methodological limitations and the implications of them for performance indicators, including, where applicable, sampling errors, margins of error, or confidence intervals.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to BBG, it has ensured that its research contractor (InterMedia) has finalized and implemented written policies and procedures for conducting surveys which serve as the basis for assessing MBN's audience. In addition, as of June 2010, BBG indicates that it has drafted a chapter in the Broadcasting Administration Manual-which is used by MBN-on how to compute performance measures. The procedures outlined in the chapter address how broadcasters should compute performance of BBG's new performance measure of "increased understanding."

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to monitor performance and the efficiency and effectiveness of the broadcasting activities of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors should develop, document, and report policies and procedures for verification and analysis of performance indicator estimates.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

 

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