Saturday, June 1, 2013

IRS Employee Training Videos: A Good Investment

"Organizations with strong learning culture have 37 percent greater employee productivity, according to Bersin & Associates’ 2010 study High Impact Learning Culture." -

In the context of a larger scandal surrounding Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting of conservative (and Jewish) groups, the news that the agency spent about $61,600 for employee training videos is not going down well.

The videos in question include a Star Trek spoof, a Gilligan's Island takeoff and a video showing line dancing. What did the taxpayer get for the money?
  • The IRS has stated that the Gilligan's Island video, at least, was used for training purposes for 1,900 employees. 
  • The Star Trek is like a trip into IRS-speak-land, and I can't tell you what it is except maybe a rah-rah for whatever it is the auditors do.
  • The line dancing video is an exercise in endorsing teamwork.
Taken as a whole, the videos clearly convey and celebrate a coherent and cohesive IRS culture. I don't know what that culture is about, but as a communicator I could see that the employees making them looked happy and not forced. Whether or not they found the exercise "embarrassing," the question is whether they were worth the investment.

Are employee videos a good use of money? Or an exercise in wasting taxpayer funds?

To answer this question one would have to answer two questions:
  • How well do IRS employees know their jobs, and do training videos starring employees enhance their skills?
  • How healthy is the organizational culture at the IRS as measured by current typical index scores such as the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey? And do videos such as this enhance culture, detract from it or have zero impact?
Obviously we can't answer these questions without getting into the IRS organization and seeing what data is available. But we certainly can't assume that the videos were a waste of money right off the bat.

In fact it seems to me that if you are using employees rather than external paid actors, $61,600 for three videos -- one of which is training nearly 2,000 people -- is not a lot of money at all. One training seminar for one employee can easily run $1,500 alone.

It could be useful to look at the videos as a reflection of IRS culture. Then we could ask, to what extent are IRS employees productive and engaged? 

We could start with its own discussion of human capital issues. In 2012 the IRS Oversight Board held a Public Forum and shared a white paper, "Human Capital Management Challenge: Fostering Employee Mentoring, Engagement, and Development in a Limited Budget Environment." The paper notes the business need for high cultural cohesion and high morale:

"As others have already documented, the current demands upon the Internal Revenue Service are enormous. More output and greater outcomes are being expected each year from each IRS employee. Yet resources relative to the demands are shrinking during these tight budgetary times. Without an engaged and committed workforce, the IRS will not be able to provide the revenue and the benefits and services that the government and the public its serves so urgently need."

The IRS therefore puts a priority on employee morale and culture directly because it has a positive correlation with productivity. Accordingly:

  • "The Internal Revenue Service in 2011 had a score of 67.6 (in overall workplace satisfaction) and it ranks 65th out of 241 federal agency subcomponents or the top third."
  • In addition--"On the workplace dimension that measures their perceptions of teamwork in the IRS. They give IRS and their colleagues a score of 71.6 in 2011 which gives IRS a ranking of 28 out of 229."
  • On, employees give the IRS an overall score of 3.4 (out of 5) and 78% expressed confidence in the head of the agency, Doug Shulman.
  • And according to a news report out today, "The Numbers People, By The Numbers":
    • "66: The IRS score, out of 100, in a measure of employee morale by the federal Office of Personnel and Management. In a 2012 ranking of job satisfaction in 292 federal divisions, the IRS finished in 98th place."
    • "76.6: The score in the Office of the Inspector General for Tax Administration, making it the 13th best place to work in government. This is the office that exposed special IRS audits of tea party and conservative groups."
Overall I think it is fair to say that something went very wrong in the IRS targeting certain groups for extra scrutiny. But it is not fair to lump employee training videos in as a symptom of the problem. Just the opposite, they may very well have been part of what kept the culture as strong as it was - and even what led to the revelation of the "special" audits in the first place. 

* All opinions, as always, are my own.