Why the IRS dance video shouldn't be a scandal

Steve Kelman explains why federal employees having a good time are not necessarily wasting taxpayer money.

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?

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