AP, IRS scandals hurt all feds and hold lessons for other agencies

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 15, 2013

As the Obama administration steps from one mudhole to another, it is, inevitably, federal employees who will get dirty.

No matter how far the average Frank or Flo Fed might be from the morass surrounding the Internal Revenue Service and Associated Press scandals, the workers will be smeared.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Even before the current troubles involving the IRS’s targeting of conservative political groups and the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP telephone records, trust in the federal government was near an all-time low — 26 percent in January, according to a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey.

Now these scandals, exploding at the same time, can only make things worse. Falling trust in government fuels the fed-bashers. It undermines confidence in the work of federal employees. It encourages potential staffers to take their talents elsewhere.

Yet, there is some good that can come from this, the IRS mess in particular. The good can come if other agencies, leaders and staffers learn from the negative lessons provided by the tax agency. Those lessons involve management, leadership and training.

The need for better training is replete in recommendations the Treasury inspector general for tax administration (TIGTA) issued Tuesday. At least four of the nine recommendations call for better training or guidance for employees.

Recommendation 3, for example, urges the IRS to “develop training or workshops to be held before each election cycle including, but not limited to, the proper ways to identify applications that require review of political campaign intervention activities.”

The IRS agreed, saying it “will develop a schedule that ensures staff have the training as needed to handle potential political intervention matters.”

In an attempt to explain how it handled the matter that has the IRS in trouble, a Q&A on its Web site said: “IRS employees had seen cases of organizations with the name Tea Party in which political activity was an issue that needed to be reviewed for compliance with legal requirements. Because of the increased inventory of applications, this inappropriate criterion was used as a shortcut to centralize similar cases.”

The agency also acknowledges mistakes but says they were not because of the nature of the organizations: “Applicants whose cases were centralized unfortunately experienced inappropriate delays and over-expansive information requests in some cases. This was caused by ineffective processes and not related to the selection criteria used for the centralization of a case.”

This explanation is nowhere near enough.

But it does point to the need for more effective leadership at the IRS. The training the agency promised for “staff” needs to include managers throughout the agency’s hierarchy.

More than once, the report cites “ineffective management” as a cause of the agency’s problems. “Potential political cases took significantly longer than average to process due to ineffective management oversight,” the report says.

Managers across the government could learn how not to do things by reading it.

This section from the report probably applies to many programs:

“Ineffective management: 1) allowed inappropriate criteria to be developed and stay in place for more than 18 months, 2) resulted in substantial delays in processing certain applications, and 3) allowed unnecessary information requests to be issued.”

The ineffective management and the lack of effective leadership mean some heads, in addition to the acting commissioner’s, probably will roll. On Wednesday, President Obama said Acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller’s resignation was requested and accepted.

“This really is inexcusable, and it raises the question, ‘What does it take to get fired in this town?’ ” Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), said on WTOP. “People need to be sacked because of this IRS scandal.”

More sacking might be on the way, but it hasn’t happened yet.

“I don’t have any information, Joe, about whether anybody’s been disciplined or not,” Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in an interview Wednesday.

In a written message to her IRS members, Kelley said, “The report showed no indication of improper political motives or intentional wrongdoing on the part of employees,” a point the IRS also made in its Q&A.

“IRS employees are dedicated and committed public servants who perform vital work on behalf of the American people,” Kelley wrote. “And in my experience, you do so without partisan considerations. The findings of the report confirm that. . . .

“The IRS has stated that no one intentionally did anything wrong,” she added, “and I believe that to be the case.”

Intentional wrongdoing or a mistake, it doesn’t seem to matter to Kaine.

“Anybody who was aware of this, and either participated or allowed it to happen, without throwing on the emergency brake or pulling the fire alarm, they’re really not fit to continue to serve,” Kaine said on the radio. “They ought to be losing their jobs.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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