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Lessons Learned: IRS Employee Training Videos & Conferences

Can things get any worse for the embattled IRS?

Like any large business, the federal government is not immune from good investments going bad, or making bad investments altogether.

Unfortunately, this stereotype continues to plague public perception regarding the business of government. The entire IRS imbroglio just makes a bad situation worse.

No Room for Error

Smart agency investments in employee training and conferences are critically important to enhance internal communication, education, collaboration, morale and productivity, among other factors.

However, with the ongoing media and Congressional feeding frenzy on feds, agency decision makers must proceed with extreme caution when authorizing spending for internal training and conferences.

It is incumbent on senior federal executives to help insure that positive perceptions of government don’t continue falling deeper into the abyss. There is no room for error at this point.

If this negative trend of fed bashing is not reversed then the remorseful result will be a near complete lack of public trust in government — and that’s something we can ill afford.

A prolonged “no trust” factor for Uncle Sam will greatly harm the effectiveness of government as an institution, which is central to a well functioning democracy.

That’s a dangerous road to go down.

Building Public Trust

Public servants work for the people — period. Feds don’t work for fame and fortune. Far from it.

It’s the patriotic and selfless principle of public service that matters most to feds. Further, public service is more than just a job, but a sacred trust with the citizenry – one that must not be breached.

  • But in the wake of so many reported “scandals” in government, should it come as any surprise that lawmakers and the public are outraged?
  • Should it come as any surprise that public trust in government is sinking faster than the Titanic?
  • Even if the now infamous IRS training videos and “lavish” conference spending actually achieved their desired results, was it really worth the price, literally and figuratively?
  • Moreover, what constitutes “lavish” spending based on IRS rules applied to the private sector? Surely, the IRS must practice what it preaches.

Also, let’s not forget about all the lavish spending by members of Congress on pork-barrel pet projects like the Bridge to Nowhere and overseas junkets.

In this regard, Congress is castigating the IRS and other agencies over spending patterns similar to its own — which is completely contradictory, to say the least (except, of course, when it comes to scoring political points).

Avoiding the “Vulcan Nerve Pinch”

No government agency, including the IRS, ever wants to receive the metaphorical Vulcan Nerve Pinch from:

  • Congress (which can be two-faced),
  • The media (which can be too sensational),
  • Stakeholders (which can be too critical), and/or
  • The public (which can be too unforgiving).

Then why did the IRS arguably waste time and money on silly looking video parodies of Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island? (plus that on-stage line dance)

What did they think might happen if such videos were exposed to Congress, the media and taxpayers?

Even Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, usually a friend to feds, repeatedly tore into the IRS during the latest oversight hearing.

“You cannot take the money of American workers and waste it,” said Rep. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Rep. Cummings said he watched the Star Trek video spoof numerous times to figure out its value, if any. Nevertheless, he was still befuddled, calling it “ridiculous” and saying, “I swear I do not see the redeeming value.”

While the reported cost of the videos may not sound like much to some feds (around $60,000), public perception of the content and cost should have set off alarm bells somewhere within the agency.

The three videos reportedly cost more to produce than the national median household income. And that’s how many average Americans view the situation, as taxpayer dollars wasted on folly and frivolity.

Any IRS employee motivation which may have accrued from these “training videos” has now been utterly lost and will be difficult to regain. Ditto for public approval of the IRS, which was already low.

Whatever morale may have still existed inside the IRS has most likely vanished by now, as the besieged agency takes round after round of relentless body blows.

Conference Spending

Then there’s the eruption over spending on IRS conferences (similar to the fairly recent GSA scandal).

  • The IRS held “225 conferences” from FY 2010-2012 at a cost of nearly $50 million to taxpayers, according to the Washington Post and other media.

That’s about six conferences per month on average. The IRS Inspector General said the conference spending does “not appear to be a good use of taxpayer funds.”

Talk about repeating the obvious…really?

The new Acting IRS Commissioner, Danny Werfel (a veteran of OMB), said: “Many of the expenses…were inappropriate and should not have occurred.”

Moreover, “Taxpayers should take comfort this would not take place today,” Werfel promised. Still, the damage is already done.

Swimming in a Fish Bowl

During this period of budget austerity, agency heads need to seriously consider how some investments in employee training programs and conferences may appear questionable to the public — not to mention Congress — especially after being exacerbated in the media.

Government’s brand image and public approval are already dismal.

The IRS has historically been one of the most despised and controversial federal agencies based on public opinion. Ironically, like the Gilligan’s Island video, the agency now finds itself shipwrecked and isolated.

To paraphrase that old adage, no federal agency is an island.

All senior federal executives government-wide need to remember they operate in a fish bowl. Therefore, transparency is tantamount to maintaining and regaining the public trust.

Weighing Costs & Benefits

Agencies need to appropriately weigh the costs and benefits of spending on internal training and conferences, some of which may be considered questionable or even foolhardy by taxpayers and the Congress.

Is the potential damage from any fallout really worth the cost in erosion of public trust?

Regarding the major IRS conference at issue, the Washington Post reports that, “…managers were unable to provide auditors with accurate data or supporting documentation on many conference costs in Anaheim, the inspector general said.”

Senior fed execs need to do a lot more introspection going forward.

  • Top managers gov-wide need to ask themselves if they want more negative stories on the front page of the Washington Post, on the nightly newscasts, or plastered in cyberspace via social media?

Message to executive managers: Don’t shoot first and ask questions later. Rather, take proactive steps and make difficult decisions to prevent further spending “scandals” from taking root.

Public servants must always hold the trust of the American people in the absolute highest regard. The IRS and other agencies must be above reproach.

Remember, perception is reality, especially in the nation’s capital.

Failure to honor the public trust is not only a major disservice to fellow government employees — many of whom have enviable track records — but, more importantly, it is a major disservice to the American people.

And no price can be put on that.


Also check out, Federal Salary: It’s About Principles, Not Pay

* All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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Henry Brown

Considering that the training that is catching all the heat was motivational training and realizing that a significant portion of the federal work force has not received any signficant pay increases over the past 3 years, and the do-nothing congress continously bashes the workforce, would offer that motivational training is badly needed, even more so than during normal times.

I don’t have any issues with this type of training being provided in the IRS program, what is missing is the Return On Investment (ROI)for the training, and It may very well be included in the IG report. Now if the Washington Post doesn’t want to include the information on the ROI shame on the Washington Post.

Now if the ROI indicates poor or no return on investment, then shame on IRS and perhaps some award money ought to be redirected and if this was the 2nd or 3rd time perhaps reassignment is due.

If there was no identification of ROI during any of these conferences, IMO that probably would be time to serious look at management and perhaps consider some changes.

John Evans

What the article fails to mention (perhaps intentionally) is that this training video was made two years ago, and was made so that funds would not be expended for employees to travel for training. We haven’t had any in-person training for more than two years. Watching videos is, in my opinion, a poor substitute for actual live training. So, the ROI was significant. But some are unwilling to let facts get in the way of an opportunity to pile on. Fed-bashing is a year-round sport these days, and most who indulge are woefully short-sighted.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the comments, John and Henry.
First, I would ask: why video conferencing or other new technologies could not have been used to curtail spending on such conferences? Moreover, one can’t put a figure on ROI when it involves loss of public trust. It’s a no win situation.
I totally agree that the media and Congress have been beating up feds for far too long. However, the news media has always viewed itself as a watchdog to “police” government.
I think may of us inside gov fail to see how the public will perceive such spending. Perhaps agency public affairs and communications staff should be more closely consulted and relied upon in this decision making process to stop the PR damage before it occurs.
I’ve found most of these folks, the PR and branding experts inside agencies, are not brought into the decision making loop early enough or often enough — that is, until it’s too late and the mess needs to be cleaned up.
Something for agency heads to think about.

David B. Grinberg

Today’s Washington Post, In the Loop column, points out something to keep in mind:

  • “Pages 238 and 239 of their copies of the 240-page Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2013, a provision that requires all agencies, boards, commissions and so on “submit annual reports to their inspector general (or senior ethics officer)” for the “costs and contracting procedures related to each conference” costing more than $100,000. (The Office of Management and Budget’s new guidelines also require deputy agency heads to approve such gatherings.)”
  • “The reports also must specify the conference’s purpose; say how many (but not who?) attended; and give detailed costs on food and drink, audiovisual services, and travel to and from, as well as procedures for awarding contracts, selecting hotels and so on. Worse yet, 15 days after any conference costing more than $20,000, agency heads must notify the IGs or ethics officials of the date, location and number of employees attending.”
  • “All this may well have a decidedly chilling effect on such lavish and/or meaningless conferences. Next thing you know, there’ll be similar legislation affecting congressional travel — including the cost of military jets and the number of hours spent by military and embassy employees on the care, feeding and transporting of members, spouses and staff members. Well, maybe not.”
David B. Grinberg

Joe Davidson, who pens the Washington Post “Federal Diary” column, writes of yesterday’s Congressional oversight hearing:

  • “Federal employees have a keen sense of mission and service. No doubt, those in the videos share that.”
  • “But in today’s environment, after an Obama administration crackdown on conference spending following a similar 2010 General Services Administration scandal, spending that kind of money is a disservice to the public and the workforce.”
  • “In more generous times, that might not have been the case. But these are not generous times. Members of Congress are outraged.”
  • “According to the inspector general’s report, $3,500 is today’s cost of the presidential hotel suite occupied during the conference.”

  • “In the harsh light of today’s political and fiscal environment, the videos, in particular, diminish the federal workforce and undermine its credibility.”

Mark Hammer

Remember the late Sen. William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece award? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Fleece_Award

You can make almost anything official, and just about any piece of research, look ridiculous and wasteful, and much less valuable than it actually is, simply by decontextualizing it. Large Hadron collider? Pfft! They spent billions on something they can’t even SEE!

I note John’s point about the intent of the videos in question as a replacement for travel. Now, whether the videos are effective in accomplishing the training objectives they had, is a whole other matter, and something I can offer no comment on since I haven’t seen them. But the point is, that if you remove all context, and are left with the question “They spent HOW MUCH on that video?”, it is easy to think of it, and the system that it serves, as wasteful.

As far as lessons to be learned, I’d suggest the following:

1) Communicate that context to elected and appointed officials AND to the public, as often, and as fully, as you can. I am regularly reminded how little elected officials truly understand about the inner workings of the bureaucratic side of things.

2) Whenever the opportunity presents, have group discussions with staff, new and existing, about how to make decisions regarding “wise” expenditures, and use of budget. I’m confident all parties have good intentions, but it is all too easy to lose your perspective, and see some costs as justified that could stand to be a little more frugal.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for offering your sage advice, Mark. All excellent points, as usual.

Regarding the videos, someone involved at the agency should have said something like this:

  • Hey wait a minute. These three videos cost more than the American median household income. Even though feds may consider it chump change in multi-trillion dollar Budget of U.S. Government, who will this go over at the dinner table for middle class earners with a modest income?

Perhaps the dinner table conversation would have gone something like this:

  • Husband: do you believe the taxman spent more on these silly videos than our family makes in a whole year!
  • Wife: you said it, hubby. Isn’t collect our taxes enough, do they really have to waste our tax dollars as well?
  • Junior: Did you say Star Trek video, cool! When can I see it?
  • Dog: bark, bark — agreeing, as junior slips Rover some food under the table.
David B. Grinberg

In case you missed it (ICYMI): Government Executive reports:

New Conference Spending Guidance Discourages Lavish ‘Social Components’

  • “At a time when overspending on agency conferences continues to make headlines, the Obama administration has fleshed out its guidance to help event planners balance mission needs with cost-cutting imperatives, assuring employees that it has not called for a moratorium on professional gatherings.”

  • “The guidance builds on a May 2012 OMB memorandum that required a 30 percent reduction in travel costs from 2010 levels through 2016; set up new internal controls that require senior management approval of conferences above a certain threshold; and required public reporting of conferences costing more than $100,000.”

  • “Such reporting must include the purpose of the conference; the number of participants; and a detailed cost statement that includes costs of food or beverages; audio-visual services; and employee or contractor travel to and from the conference.”