If Congress forces the government to shut down, then agencies and employees might have to shut down office Web-based e-mail and power off BlackBerrys, according to federal law.
The so-called Antideficiency Act prohibits agencies from accepting voluntary labor for services that are not essential -- vital to the protection of life and property -- during a shutdown. Federal officials or employees who violate the rules can be fined up to $5,000 or sent to prison for two years. In other words, it's illegal for employees to work and for agencies to allow work to be done.
Read literally, the law presents a conundrum in the 21st century where portable Internet devices, such as smart phones and networked laptops, have erased the boundaries between work and home. Would information technology managers have to block network access to all nonessential employees during the shutdown? Will agencies play Big Brother and use monitoring technology to detect when employees are working remotely?
Unless the Obama administration issues a governmentwide policy, expect agencies to be all over the map in their approaches to enforcing the law, say former federal officials.
Lawmakers and the White House have until March 4 to agree on a stopgap spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year. If they can't settle their arguments over budget cuts, nonessential employees on March 5 are supposed to stop working.
"The idea is that people would do work," said Jim Lewis, a former Foreign Service senior official whose assignments involved national security and IT issues. "So, that's probably contrary to the law, but are you not going to let them call in to check their voice mail? [The question is] where do we draw the line here?"
Agencies should not control network settings in a way that would make it difficult to bring employees back online once the shutdown ends, he added. "If you assume the shutdown is temporary you want to keep the communications networks up and running," Lewis said.
Also, agencies should recognize that messaging is essential in emergency situations, including a shutdown, he noted.
"How do you get the word out to people when it's time to come back to work?" Lewis asked, "You could send them a letter. But you might need to accept that the 19th century is over."
Some federal IT experts say agencies shouldn't bother with attempting to ban telework because that in itself saps federal funding.
"The law is really there to protect the employee from being forced into donating time," said Alan Paller, research director at the SANS Institute, a computer security training center. "You should enforce the law when the enforcement is to the country's benefit. You shouldn't invest money to create barriers that are simply trying to protect people from themselves."
Another complication for agencies that try to stop employees from working online is the risk of data breaches, other former federal officials said.
"People who work despite what you tell them will be transferring information from their work accounts to their private accounts" or commercial collaboration tools, including Facebook, said Hord Tipton, a veteran chief information officer for the Interior Department who serves as executive director of (ISC)2, an association that certifies cybersecurity specialists. "It will be very difficult to control information flow."
Office of Management and Budget officials on Wednesday declined to discuss hypothetical situations, instead referring questions to a statement made earlier in the week: "As the part of the executive branch charged with overseeing the management of the federal government, OMB is prepared for any contingency as a matter of course -- and so are all the agencies."