This story has been updated.
In the event of a government shutdown, federal websites "would remain operational" if they are deemed "necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or accepted activities," a White House official told Nextgov in an email message late Wednesday.
Websites deemed critical would keep operating even if the cost of doing so comes from appropriations that have lapsed, she said.
After days of confusion, the fate of federal websites in the event of a government shutdown became a bit clearer as senior Obama administration officials scrambled to prepare for the possibility that the federal government will run out of money at midnight on Friday.
In 1996, the last time Congress failed to pass a budget, forcing a shutdown, agencies' online presence and dependence on the Web was minimal. Today, virtually every government agency has a website, if not several websites, and many use them to conduct mission-related business with the public. Most are packed with news and information and some enable citizens to ask questions and conduct transactions, such as applying for Social Security benefits, participating in federal drug trials, or reporting suspicious activity in an age of terrorism.
One website likely to keep operating despite a shutdown is IRS.gov, which "may be necessary to allow for tax filings and tax collection, which are activities that continue during an appropriations lapse," the official said.
The U.S. Postal Service also is expected to keep its website up and running despite a shutdown. Since USPS is no longer funded by Congress, its site won't be affected, said spokesman Greg Frey.
At the Department of Health and Human Services, an official said Thursday afternoon that decisions about agency websites remain in flux. "Our plans are truly not final yet," he said, but it is likely that HHS websites will be updated less often.
Some web services may run more slowly. "Services for beneficiaries, such as 1-800 Medicare, the "Medicare and You" handbook, could be limited, with longer hold and wait times," he said.
During the shutdown, HHS websites that handle Medicare and Medicaid matters "would be unable to process system corrections in beneficiary records, potentially jeopardizing beneficiaries' access to care."
Also, HHS "may be forced to disable the Online Enrollment Center for Medicare's private plans, meaning beneficiaries would have to directly contact health plans to enroll," the official said. And the agency "would be unable to respond to requests for assistance regarding beneficiary issues that come through States and Partner Organizations."
The Veterans Affairs Department website also will be kept functioning. A list of steps VA will take during a shutdown included this advice to veterans, "Keep monitoring VA's website for additional information, including frequently asked questions and correspondence from the leadership team."
For the duration of a shutdown, agency-operated websites that are not judged to be critical "would not remain active," the official said. That doesn't mean they will necessarily vanish from the Internet. Rather, if they remain available, the information on them might not be up to date, and transactions submitted to agencies through the sites might not be processed until the shutdown ends. Similarly, agency officials aren't likely to respond to inquiries submitted through websites until Congress passes a budget, the official said.
As of Thursday evening, the Commerce Department was planning to close five of its websites and keep two open, a department official said. Decisions on other sites were still pending, an agency spokesman said.
Sites to be closed include the International Trade Administration, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Economics and Statistics Administration, the Economic Development Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The National Weather Service website will continue to operate, and the Patent and Trademark Office will operate for the first six days of a shutdown, the Commerce official said. PTO has six days worth of money left from the 2010 budget, he said. After that, if the shutdown continues, the PTO website will shut down.
Visitors to Commerce Department sites will probably be redirected to a page telling them that the websites are have been closed by the government shutdown, he said.
Gregg Bailey, a former chief information officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said, "The key will be what does the website do and how much work will it take to keep it running." Agencies with websites that handle transactions, for example, might want to shut the websites down so that work that can't be completed doesn't pile up, he said.
Informative, but non-essential websites, such as USASpending.gov, ITDashboard.gov and Data.gov are likely candidates for being shut down, he said. They provide transparency and visibility into government operations, so "if they're shut down, it will be more difficult to see what the government is doing," he said. "But on the other hand, if the government is shut down, it won't be doing much."
Agencies are expected to post notices on their Web home pages about which online features will work and which won't during the shutdown.
For the duration of a shutdown, support for websites and other information technology systems "will be the minimum necessary to maintain functionality and ensure the security and integrity of the system during a funding lapse," the official said.
It will be up to each agency to determine whether website employees are essential and thus exempt from the shutdown, she said.