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By Steve Kelman

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Why the IRS dance video shouldn't be a scandal

IRS dance vid

IRS employees learn to line-dance in a video that has created a new controversy for the agency. Is it another example of wasteful spending?

As of early Monday morning, a Google search of "IRS dance video" yielded over 64 million hits, not bad for a story that only broke over the weekend. At the risk of unleashing a torrent of abuse, may I ask why?

This video lacks some of the features that gave legs to last year's GSA conference scandal. The GSA conference took place in Las Vegas (known for its glitz and excess, even though it's really an inexpensive place to hold conferences). There were photos of the offending GSA regional administrator lolling in a huge hot tub, and videos shown on TV appeared to show employees advocating being lazy or wasting money (though both videos were parodies).

The IRS video, on the other hand, features a group of nerdy and uncoordinated IRS employees trying to loosen up by doing the "cupid shuffle" (I will confess that I – perhaps like some boring IRS employees -- am such a nerd that I had never heard of this dance before).

Frankly, the political and public reactions to this video are depressing, not because of what it says about the IRS but because of what it says about expectations of how government organizations should be managed and how government people should behave. (Forbes published one such reaction.)

Modern organizations often produce their products or services in groups. To be more productive, organizations therefore have an interest in employees feeling good about each other, making it easier for them to work together effectively. They also recognize that productivity is generally enhanced when people feel good about their work environment. For that reason, modern organizations typically invest in trying to get employees to move beyond only formal interactions so that they may feel good about each other. That includes jokes and spoofs. "Work hard, play hard" is a common view. A Google search of the phrase "team building conference" yields more than 1 billion hits.

Instead, the view about government, rather than the view about managing in the private sector, seems more akin to what might be called the Gradgrind school of management, which was prominent in the early years of the industrial revolution. (Gradgrind is the name of the main character in Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times, a school headmaster who was cold and heartless to his young charges. The word today, according to Wikipedia, is "used generically to refer to someone who is hard and only concerned with cold facts and numbers.")

In this mentality, interactions should only be formal. People shouldn't feel any emotional ties to each other. And of course they should never laugh.

Government is usually not the most fun-loving, informal work environment, in touch with its feelings and with high bonds among teams. The IRS dance spoofs were efforts to try to counteract those problems. The reaction, unfortunately, gives government a really strong message: bureaucrats need to act like bureaucrats. Don't get out of your boring lane.

Gee, sounds like just the kind of organization a normal person should be attracted to, right?

Posted on Jun 03, 2013 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Thu, Jun 6, 2013

In case the public did not know, government employees pay taxes too, so does IRS employees.

Wed, Jun 5, 2013 M

Actually, no, the message is not " interactions should only be formal. People shouldn't feel any emotional ties to each other. And of course they should never laugh." The message is: Taxpayers are tired of paying for the excesses and the abuse of the public trust.

Wed, Jun 5, 2013

I must be working for the wrong agency. In over 20 years, we have never had a conference of this kind, much less an expensive one. We do everything by e-mail, conference call, or video, and that is only work-related. Getting travel money for training, and even training, is difficult at best. What few parties we have are funded by staff, the agency won't put a dime into anything like that. The closest we get to anything like this is an in-office Christmas party, which lasts an hour- during lunch- which staff pay for out of pocket. Now contractors have parties like this.

Wed, Jun 5, 2013 K PA

Spending TAXPAYER money on a "Team Building" video ? Cut me (and America) a break. This article which tries to "white wash" this extravagant waste is a part of the overall problem in the the govt sector which I am frankly getting sick of. Yes, I am a Govt Employee. This article makes me wonder why does my leadership (Govt Agency) pitch their money together to pay out of THEIR OWN pockets for our team building activities, group luncheons, and other fun stuff ? (I know this cause I collect their money to pay the bills for our events.) Are they SUPPOSED to be wasting money from the taxpayer instead ? I always thought that Leadership ment leading and doing the "Right Thing." I'm starting to learn from these articles and recent events that I was wrong and that wasting taxpayer money is every govt employees' responsibility and that true Leadership is displayed by spending more than needed because taxpayer money is unlimited. NOTE: The folks involed in this "Team Building" should be required to pay that wasted money back to the Treasury Dept. If not, fire them for a Lack of Leadership. As a govt employeee who believes in "An honest day's pay for and honest day's work" I am angry over this unjustifiable expenditure. I certainly hope that these dancing IRS govt employees were on Annual Leave hours versus getting "paid" to dance AND waste even more taxpayer money. Un-freaking believeable.

Tue, Jun 4, 2013

93,000 employed at the IRS, $50M over 2 Years/ hmmm.... do the math.

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