Political Appointee Seeks Help from “Dear Abby”

Why would the head of a major federal agency be writing a letter to Dear Abby? Can this be good for a political appointee’s career?

“Dear Abby” is one of the most widely read columns in the world according to Wikipedia.

It is probably the type of newspaper column that, while widely and sometimes eagerly read by millions, lacks the sophistication necessary to impress your friends and relatives if they happen to see you reading the column in your morning paper.

The topics in the column cover a wide range of problems from how to deal with a family member coming out of the closet to various types of relationship problems as well as questions of social etiquette.

No doubt, a number of federal employees read the column and a number of probably send in letters seeking advice to improve their personal lives. Of course, the letters usually have signatures like “Frustrated Suitor in Arlington” or “Worried About my Strange Uncle in Poughkeepsie” so one would never know the true identity of the author.

So, while I am somewhat reluctant to admit that I do, occasionally, glance at the letters, a headline in a local paper caught my eye. The headline read “Taxpayers get ‘stimulated’ by filing return.” Admittedly, when I saw the headline, it immediately came to mind that, perhaps, there would be an interesting angle for FedSmith–probably something about how employees at the Internal Revenue Service occasionally with strange perversions from taxpayers.

When quickly glancing at the signature, I was surprised to see a real name attached to the letter: “Doug Shulman, IRS Commissioner.” Having been writing for a federal audience for a couple of decades, I quickly saw the implications of this letter. The political appointee of a federal agency writing to Dear Abby and pouring out his heart about relationship problems would have a certain eccentric appeal to our federal audience.

With some disappointment, I found that the letter was about the stimulating tax rebate program. And, perhaps unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the rebates creating relationship problems in the Shulman household or any other spicy information of a personal nature. Instead, it tells readers to go to www.irs.gov for more information about receiving their tax rebates along with information about how to get the money in the hands of taxpayers.

The Commissioner’s letter also got a response from the relationship expert. She called him “a wise man who obviously understand the power of world-of-mouth ‘advertising’ ” and she asked her readers to help get the word about about how to get a rebate check.

This may also be a coincidence. In today’s Washington Post, Steve Barr has a column about the IRS trying to educate the public about tax rebates and the impact the rebate issue is having on the workload at the agency. He notes that “The number of calls about tax rebates would have been substantially greater if the IRS had not spent about $45 million sending advance notices to more than 130 million taxpayers.”

Presumably, the advertising in Dear Abby was free although Steve did not mention the Commissioner’s letter. Perhaps he did not know about the column or, perhaps, he suspected the more sophisticated readers of The Washington Post would not be impressed by a columnist who quoted Dear Abby in a paper that prides itself on political and social sophistication and the wiser move would be to keep that tidbit out of the column. (See paragraph two above.)

The IRS Commissioner has taken a bold step by demonstrating the ability to get in touch with the average American–even more unusual for a man who has degrees from Williams College in Massachusetts, Harvard and Georgetown University Law Center. One could infer that he, secretly or otherwise, reads the advice to the lovelorn which, whether we admit it or not, touches all of us at some time.

So kudos to the IRS Commissioner for daring to at least imply he reads Dear Abby and respects her audience. That should give everyone who runs into Commissioner Shulman at the next Georgetown cocktail party a common topic of discussion.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47