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.
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.
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).
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?
“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.
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.