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Federal Tech Impacts Amid a Government Shutdown

Federal Tech Impacts Amid a Government Shutdown

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Federal Tech Impacts
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As federal agencies prepare for a possible shutdown, the lapse in funding would lead to some programs and employees seeing some disruptions.

Federal Workforce Impacts

In the case of any funding lapse, the 2.2 million civilian federal employees fall into three categories: exempt, excepted and non-excepted.

The first two categories of employees would continue to work during the shutdown and continue to be paid. Excepted employees, sometimes called “essential,” and exempt employees are those funded by other avenues than the lapsed budget bills.

Those in the third category would not be able to work and are forbidden from, according to guidance from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), volunteering or working. Non-excepted employees would not be paid for as long as the shutdown lasts, though Congress did pass a law in 2019 that guarantees back pay for all federal employees.

According to OPM, “excepted employees include employees who are performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property or performing certain other types of excepted work.” Agencies do not have much latitude in employee status.

Impacts to Cybersecurity 

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) would see approximately 82% of its workforce furloughed during a shutdown. The Department of Homeland Security’s plan for a “lapse in appropriations” would retain 571 of 3,117 CISA employees.

In a fact sheet, DHS warned that a shutdown would hurt CISA’s “capacity to provide timely and actionable guidance to help partners defend their networks” and that some infrastructure networks and election officials could be at particular risk of cyberthreats. The fact sheet also noted that 72% of the DHS workforce would be required to work without pay, including employees tasked with “preventing and coordinating responses to cyberattacks and threats to the federal government and other critical infrastructure.”

The Treasury Department updated its shutdown plans to include more IRS employees to be furloughed. IRS had previously expected to carry forward money from the Inflation Reduction Act to keep nearly all of its staff working, but its updated plan has nearly 60,000 of IRS’ 89,000-plus employees to be furloughed.

The IRS contingency plan notes that essential cybersecurity work would continue, including “computer operations to prevent the loss of data” and “maintenance of existing on-line applicant (OLA) applications and messaging updates.” However, other “Information systems functions (except as necessary to prevent loss of data in process and revenue collections)” are considered part of the non-excepted work and would cease.

Impacts on Agency Operations

The Defense Department employs more than 800,000 civilians, of which 45% would be furloughed, according to DOD shutdown guidance. While uniformed servicemembers would be working, they may miss paychecks and would not have full support from civilian employees at DOD.

“When you don’t have your full operating capacity, to be able to help with a mission, to be able to conduct an exercise or training, of course, that gets to our national security and readiness,” said Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh. Defense guidance, however, said command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work is excepted and would continue during a funding lapse.

NASA would furlough more than 90% of its workforce, halting many research projects. Administrator Bill Nelson said the agency would “maintain the people to protect life and property — operational missions, such as satellites, landers, and rovers, as well as the International Space Station and its crew,” he said in a statement to GovCIO Media and Research.

“It [would] have devastating consequences for NASA,” the statement continued.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ contingency plan calls for 37,325 — approximately 42% of the department’s total workforce — staffers to be furloughed. The agency would keep its data operations going; 807 staff (excluding those otherwise authorized by law) would be excepted for the protection of computer data. According to HHS, “all of ARPA-H activities would continue during a lapse of Appropriation,” because the subagency has been appropriated three-year appropriations that would fund it.

Other agencies would be less affected. At the Department of Veterans Affairs, the contingency plan calls for only 15,620 of 456,057 VA employees to be furloughed. A fact sheet also noted that veterans’ VA benefits — including education, pensions and other benefits — would continue to be processed and that the agency would continue to process most online services for veterans.

Here are some notable additional technology-related implications:

  • Training. As far as OPM is concerned, training, meetings and communications are the same as more conventional work. Non-excepted employees are, according to OPM, “ordered not to attend the scheduled training” if they are furloughed. At DOD, some training for uniformed personnel would also cease. “Things could be delayed when it comes to training,” Singh said. “If any of our personnel are furloughed … that could have impacts to the larger mission.”

  • Government devices. Furloughed employees are not to use their government-issued equipment for any purpose other than “for orderly shutdown activities or to periodically check for shutdown-related updates and communications,” according to NASA guidance. An employee would also be in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act if they used a government device for “personal use,” the NASA document said.

  • Research grants. The National Science Foundation (NSF) said last week that it would “use available carryover balances to continue daily operations.” For other NSF and National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grantees, grant payments would continue. However, for those and other agencies tasked with funding research grants, most new awards would not be granted and grant program review meetings would likely not go forward.

  • Government websites. Federal websites could also be effected should a shutdown prolong. The prior government shutdown that began in December 2018 caused some agency website HTTPS certificates to expire because these agency staff members in charge of renewals were furloughed.

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