Workforce

Even short shutdowns complicate federal hiring

Shutterstock image (by Amy Johansson):  

With two government shutdowns in recent memory -- and a third looming -- the disruptions of federal operations make an already-protracted federal hiring process even more challenging.

Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and a 33-year veteran of the federal workforce, made it clear that all parties involved -- the government, the workforce, the taxpayers -- lose during a federal shutdown.

"I think the biggest thing it does for hiring is that it really damages the government's reputation as an employer," he said. "When you're thinking about looking for a job, particularly in a field that's in demand, and a lot of tech talent is demand ... it kind of makes you think, 'Maybe this isn't the kind of outfit I want to sign up with.'"

Neal, currently senior vice president for the human resources consultancy ICF, added that using the government budget deadlines to leverage political priorities sends the message to current federal employees that they're a political football. "And I don't think people like being a political football."

Dan Blair, president and CEO emeritus of the National Academy of Public Administration, said that for human resources departments, "things can get backed up, and you can't do anything."

"HR specialists have all this piled up on their plates ... and you already have an arduous hiring process," he said.

Then, whenever Congress does reach an agreement, "you're expected to catch right up on the work that would've already been done" without a shutdown, said Neal. 

"Employees are thinking, 'If I did my job the way these politicians did their jobs, I'd be fired,'" Neal said.  "It's kind of infuriating for the employees."

Blair, who served as deputy director at the Office of Personnel Management during the George W. Bush administration, said that in the context of the stances taken towards the federal workforce by this administration and Congress, the consequences of a government shutdown on the workforce are compounded.

Between the hiring freeze, agency downsizing, budget cuts and potentially a pay freeze in fiscal year 2019, Blair said that assessing the impact of a shutdown requires "looking at the totality of ... how a shutdown fits into this puzzle of government as an employer."

In a statement, Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, slammed Congress's "petty partisan brinkmanship."

"Throwing a wrench into the running engine of government is not only embarrassing and inefficient, it is wasteful," he said. "When this debate concludes and the government resumes its business, some members of Congress will no doubt feel compelled to once again take up legislative arms against federal employees. But let us recall that it was Congressional inaction that led to this predicament."

While this particular shutdown was lifted after just three days, "the damage has already been done to the American economy, public views of the federal government and the ability of career civil servants to deliver on the important missions they undertake on behalf of U.S. taxpayers," Valdez added.

Plus, there's still the threat of another shutdown that could take place as soon as Feb. 8.

In the interim, the uncertainty facing employees, who were already operating under a string of continuing resolutions, is heightened.

"For those folks, they're just kind of on hold," said Neal. "Most agencies don't know anything more than they knew a week ago or a month ago."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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