Bowing to pressure from Congress and media outlets, the Internal Revenue Service has released a pair of campy parody videos of Star Trek and Gilligan’s Island, while admitting that the $60,000 spent to produce the videos could have been better spent.
Last week, House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Charles Boustany, R-La., wrote to IRS Acting Commissioner Steven T. Miller demanding the IRS release the videos and provide a complete accounting of the production expenditures at the IRS’s video studio in New Carrollton, Md., (see Congressman Demands IRS Release Star Trek Video). CBS News filed a Freedom of Information Act request and the IRS released the Star Trek video on Friday evening, followed by the Gilligan’s Island video on Saturday night.
Both videos feature IRS employees playing the roles of the Starship Enterprise crew and the castaways on Gilligan’s Island discussing matters such as the tax gap and taxpayer assistance. Much of the $60,000 appears to have been spent on rebuilding a replica of the galley of the Starship Enterprise, while the Gilligan parody is fairly low budget, with a few palm trees in the background.
[IMGCAP(1)]The IRS released a statement with the Star Trek video, noting that the use of video training and video outreach through the in-house studio has become increasingly important to the IRS to reach both taxpayers and employees. “In the current budget environment, using video for training purposes helps us save millions of dollars and is an important part of successful IRS cost-efficiency efforts. IRS YouTube videos have been viewed more than 5 million times on important issues ranging from refund information to identity theft,” said the IRS.
However, the IRS admitted that the space parody video from 2010 was not reflective of overall IRS video efforts, which provide critical information to taxpayers and cost-effective employee training critical to running the nation’s tax system. The agency also apologized for the expenditure. “The IRS has instituted tough new standards for videos to prevent situations similar to the 2010 video,” said the IRS.
The Star Trek video served as the opening of a training and leadership conference in 2010 about current and future issues facing the IRS Small Business/Self-Employed Division. ”The video was a well-intentioned, light-hearted introduction to an important conference during a difficult period for the IRS,” said the agency. “The video was intended to set the stage for many of the topics being covered at the conference. Conference topics included tax law updates, strategic IRS issues as well as employee management and safety issues.”
The Star Trek video opens with a tax-oriented variation on the famous lines at the beginning of each Star Trek episode: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise Y. Its never-ending mission is to seek out new tax forms, to explore strange new regulations, to boldly go where no government employee has gone before.
Captain’s Log: Star Date 8.23.2110. We received a distress call from the Planet No Tax in the A Tax System. According to their leaders, the planet’s civilization has degraded to anarchy. Chaos rules over order. We sent a landing party to assess situation and report back. We hope we’re not too late.”
The IRS admitted that the video may not have been the best use of taxpayer funds. “The IRS recognizes and takes seriously our obligation to be good stewards of government resources and taxpayer dollars,” said the IRS. “There is no mistaking that this video did not reflect the best stewardship of resources. Since the video’s production three years ago, the IRS has made numerous changes in this area. We have put in place additional financial and other controls on a wide range of expenditures, including training. A video of this type would not be made today. Going forward, we have put in place tighter procedures to ensure all of our videos across the IRS embrace the core concepts of taxpayer service and employee training in a prudent, cost-effective manner.”
[IMGCAP(2)]The Gilligan’s Island video provided filing season training for 1,900 employees in the IRS’s Taxpayer Assistance Centers in 400 locations.”This example of video training alone saved the IRS about $1.5 million each year compared to the costs of training the employees in person,” said the IRS.
“This approach reflects a newer IRS model of using video to dramatically save on training and travel costs,” the IRS explained. “Using video provides a more cost-efficient way of doing business than face-to-face meetings.”
The 2011 Gilligan’s Island segment is the introductory portion of a 12-hour video training series on a variety of tax law and filing season topics, including remittance procedures; physical and data security in the taxpayer assistance center; assisting taxpayers with federal tax deposits; ITIN/ATIN and PTIN Inquiries; interactive tax law assistant; quality defects; dependents; energy and education credits; installment agreements; identity theft; adjustments; examination issues; individual retirement accounts; conducting payment processing reviews; analyzing business objects reports; resource tools; and other topics. The Gilligan’s Island themed opening, dubbed "FA [Field Assistance] Quality Island," was used to engage employees in the issues to be discussed over the 12 hour training.
In the future, the IRS said it wants to ensure all of its videos provide clear value for taxpayers and tax administration. “In the current budget environment, the use of video training and video outreach has become increasingly important to the IRS for both internal and external audiences,” said the IRS. “To provide further safeguards and ensure consistency, the IRS has instituted a stronger, tighter review process for all video projects requiring approval of senior leadership inside the sponsoring IRS business units as well as a centralized executive editorial review board. This new oversight process will ensure that all IRS videos are handled in a judicious manner that makes wise use of taxpayer funds while ensuring a tone and theme appropriate for the nation’s tax system. These efforts will help strengthen overall IRS video efforts and ensure all IRS video operations remain fully focused on taxpayer service and employee education and training. In addition, this effort will make sure all videos reflect a tone and content appropriate for administering the nation’s tax system.”