Government Shutdown

Agencies enact contingency plans

capitol dome and bills

From the vast and sprawling to the tiny and obscure, federal agencies have filed plans with the Office of Management and Budget describing how they will handle a government shutdown, revealing a government in which some functions are more essential than others.

The guides are supposed to give federal employees a rough idea of what is going to happen during what the government is pleased to call a "lapse in appropriations." The documents aren't uniform, and can be hard to decipher. Few agencies produced the top-line numbers of total head count, along with numbers for essential and non-essential (or "excepted" and "non-excepted") employees, as requested by OMB.

What emerges from the documents is a picture of a federal workforce where not all employees are created equal. At the Veterans Affairs Department, only 14,224 employees out of a total of more than 332,000 are considered "non-excepted" and subject to furlough. The Veterans Health Administration, by far the largest VA component, has 86 percent of its discretionary budget appropriated in advance. Many of the non-essential personnel are coming from the IT ranks, with more than 3,200 of 8,000 workers in the VA's Office of Information Technology subject to furlough.

The Defense Department didn't include a breakdown of the numbers of its civilian employees that would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown, but its guidance indicates that only a "minimum number of civilian employees necessary to carry out excepted activities will be excepted from furlough." The department maintains about 800,000 civilian workers, about half of whom could be put on leave in the event of a shutdown.

Employees of agencies with law enforcement and public safety functions are mostly being spared. Of 114,486 employees at the Department of Justice, 96,300 are excepted from furlough. The situation is much the same at the Department of Homeland Security, with 31,295 out of 231,117 employees considered eligible for furlough.

By contrast, civilian agencies such as the Department of Labor are going to be hit hard. Fewer than 3,000 of the department's more than 16,000 employees would avoid furlough. At the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only three individual posts out of 2,400 are considered excepted. The statisticians and economists at the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation will fare rather better in the event of a shutdown, because their operations are not funded by annual appropriations.

Computer systems that are needed to power excepted or already authorized functions will remain in operation and supported by agency IT staff or contractors. For example, the computer systems constructed for the operation the 2010 health care law, which will begin open enrollment Oct. 1, possibly amid a government shutdown, will be attended by IT staff. Additionally, the databases that feed eligibility information to the exchanges from the Treasury, DHS, Defense, VA, Social Security and other sources will remain in operation. Computer systems that support mandatory spending programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will remain open for business.

Furloughed employees will be ordered not to check agency email on their personal devices, and users of government issued devices could be asked to return them to the office during a shutdown.

Agencies can stop maintaining websites if it's possible to do so without compromising essential functions, according to the OMB guidance. The OMB does ask that agencies that shutter public-facing websites include an away message indicating that information might not be up to date, and that responses might not be forthcoming until an appropriation is signed into law.

Fans of the National Zoo's popular PandaCam will be sad to learn that the feed featuring the new panda cub will cease broadcasting for the duration of a shutdown. But the pandas and other zoo animals will continue to be fed.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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