Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The IRS Star Trek Video: You're Just Doing It Wrong

The latest government waste outrage is the IRS Star Trek parody video.  The government spent $60,000 on this and another training video based on Gilligan's Island.  People are up in arms over the perceived waste of money.  But making a training video wasn't necessarily a waste.  The IRS just made one that was lousy and taught nothing of value.  I'm not really against making more entertaining training videos, as long as they actually train people to do something.

I've been forced to sit through various training videos made by the various companies I've worked for over the years.  Usually, the typical corporate training video starts with 2nd rate graphics and a corporate logo, with cheesy elevator music playing in the background.  Then a narration about whatever blah-blah corporate policy the video is about starts.  The voice talent is usually a person with a voice that's both sonorous and soporific, like someone who works for NPR.  Right off the bat, this video starts to sound like cheap propaganda.  It's groan inducing, eye roll inducing, and cringe inducing.  I've seen these on everything from "good corporate ethics" to "how to lift heavy things.".  But whatever the subject matter is, no matter how valuable, the message is lost because the watchers stop taking it seriously almost immediately.

Granted, the watchers stopped taking the IRS video seriously almost immediately, as well.  But not because it used a goofy story to get the point across.  When done right, the entertainment approach can be very effective.  It's not the first time the government has used the slightly silly for training.  In World War II, Walt Disney famously produced many training cartoons for soldiers, such as this one.  Okay, it's actually Canadian, but there are plenty of others that were made for the US.  They're just much more difficult to find on YouTube, apparently.  This sort of video would have been effective at both keeping the recruits' attention (many of them were very young, and probably had the attention span of young people) and actually training them.

I'm wondering if the military still does this.  Looney Tunes was always way better than Disney.  Some of them would make great training videos. 

Wile E Coyote would be extremely effective at training explosive ordnance disposal personnel on how not to handle explosives.

And he would also be effective at teaching them why one should properly pack a parachute. 

Elmer Fudd could train infantrymen on the value of checking the flanks so that rabbits or Taliban or whatever don't sneak up on them. 

And Pepi Le Pew would be perfect for teaching soldiers about sexual harassment.

I digress, but not too much.  An entertaining video can help make learning about an ordinarily dry subject more palatable, and therefore more effective.  And I can think of few subjects more dry than the internal revenue code or policies of the IRS.  Sadly, the Star Trek video taught nothing of value.  It made a few references to subjects of interest (identity theft, for example), but didn't go into any real depth.  This video looked more like the type of thing a really nerdy frat house put together after getting drunk on a Saturday night.
I'm not sure how someone would successfully combine Star Trek with an IRS training video.  Perhaps it would involve an intrepid away team of IRS auditors digging it's way out from under a mound of receipts.  But it's worth noting that the Gilligan's Island video was actually determined to have some training value, so it must be possible.  Too bad the Star Trek video was a total waste.  Granted, $60,000 isn't a huge amount when compared to most government spending.  But it does provide another example of the government's cavalier attitude toward spending public funds.  There is a culture of entitlement amongst bureaucrats that assumes that they can spend money budgeted to them on whatever they like.  Like extravagant conventions held by the GSA.  Or Joe Biden's hotel bills.
Goofy stuff isn't necessarily a waste, though.  The makers of these videos claim that they can actually save money.  I think that's true, since it's probably less expensive than printing loads of instructional materials and hiring instructors to teach long, dull classes that no one pays attention to.  That might be more expensive than even five or six videos.  But we need someone to ensure that the content actually does the job.  And doesn't suck.
So the government doesn't have to explain why the videos were made.  It only has to explain why it couldn't do better.  I'm all for training government employees in the cheapest and most effective way possible.  Videos can actually do that, like the WWII cartons.  And on that note, I definitely think the military should consider bringing the Looney Tunes in for training.  At least use Wile E Coyote as a drill instructor.  But maybe don't have him instruct on the things he's bad at, like explosives, engineering, or anything involving falling from great heights.  Maybe he should be a shooting instructor instead?

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