Should I stay or should I go?

Federal IT employees are unsure which of them will be spared from furloughs if the government shuts down Oct. 1.

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Federal guidelines don't explicitly define who qualifies as "essential" and "non-essential" IT personnel, allowing agencies to use their discretion to decide who would stay on and who would be furloughed in the event of a government shutdown.

Because every agency has different responsibilities, having a hard and fast set of definitions could cause more problems than having one that's too broad or narrow to be useful.

Deciding who was -- to put it officially -- "excepted," or "non-excepted," was confusing in the last shutdown. Federal IT operations have only grown more complicated since then.

One former GSA employee who worked in IT contracting during the last government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996 told FCW that at the time he was given conflicting instructions on whether he should stay or go home. At first he said he was told to stay because that agency was going to stay open, only to be told later by a top manager to leave because he was non-excepted.

That kind of ambiguity looms again for federal IT workers. Which category an IT employee falls into depends on agencies and their individual managers, with guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management.

OMB has issued a blanket statement ahead of the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2014 that said it "strongly believes a lapse in appropriations" won't occur, but "prudent management requires that the government plan for the possibility of a lapse and OMB is working with agencies to take appropriate action."

"Agencies are still in the process of reviewing relevant legal requirements and updating their plans," said a Sept. 25 statement from OMB press secretary Emily Cain. "Determinations about specific programs are being actively reviewed as agencies undertake this process."

Bottom line, if personnel aren't responsible for lives, health matters or security, they'll probably be non-excepted, according to the guidelines. Even those who have been designated "emergency employees" by an agency to help handle severe weather conditions, power failures, interruption of public transportation and other day-to-day- difficulties aren't automatically exempt from furlough.

OMB's guidelines said agency legal counsels working with senior managers are determining which employees are designated to handle excepted and non-excepted functions.

As a result, a shutdown for IT workers can be a mixed bag, depending greatly on what agency they work for.

The Department of Agriculture, for instance, probably has far fewer IT employees who fit the necessary "life, health and security" parameters than, say, an intelligence or federal law enforcement agency.

Agencies that might be missing an ample portion of their IT workforce if a shutdown occurs could be headed into unknown territory during and after, since many now common IT functions weren't around in 1996. An IT manager FCW talked with expressed concern over how cloud services contracts would be affected by a shut down and about the welfare of ongoing big data computing projects, including those at federal research facilities that collect data continuously and need looking after.

NEXT STORY: NIST head defends work with NSA

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