For some feds, the only authorized use of a government-issued device during a shutdown is seeing if they need to go back to work.
Just because the government shuts down does not necessarily prohibit federal employees from using their government-issued devices for personal matters, but some agencies do require employees to turn in devices, turn them off or put other additional restrictions on their use during a shutdown.
The Office of Management and Budget's guidance released Friday allows agencies to set their own guidance for mobile devices as long as they do not rely on the devices to call employees back to work. For some agencies, furloughed employees may have to turn in devices until it's time to return to work.
For instance, the top-level guidance from the Health and Human Services Department doesn’t specifically mention whether employees need to turn in their devices. However, the contingency plan released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says employees can “maintain possession of their BlackBerrys, laptops, or other mobile devices, but should power them down while in a furlough status.”
As the Senate debates a short-term spending bill, we break down which agencies require employees to turn in their devices during a shutdown. As always, be sure to check with your manager, as specific requirements can differ.
Here’s what we found:
Employees of the vast Commerce Department will likely be able to hang on to their government devices through a shutdown. The list of excepted IT requirements and contracts specifically lists “Mobile Devices (iPhones, iPads)” and “Desktops/Laptops” as immune to the shutdown.
Outside of specific program or office requirements, Commerce employees can take their devices home during a shutdown.
While Energy’s shutdown plan does not require employees to turn in their devices, it does warn employees not to use them for anything they couldn’t before a shutdown.
From the guidance, under prohibited activities:
Use of equipment and utilities (including the use of government issued BlackBerrys, tokens, and other devices) not related to authorized activities where their use creates liabilities for the government beyond those existing on the date of the funding lapse.
Energy employees should be careful how they use their government-issued devices and might want to consider not using them at all during a shutdown. Best to check with your manager beforehand.
Homeland employees should hang on to their government-issued devices but only to check on the status of the shutdown. The contingency plan explicitly states that any other use could be punishable by law.
From the guidance (emphasis added):
During a hiatus, non-exempt personnel may continue to retain and monitor their DHS issued electronic devices for status updates and emergency notifications from their supervisors or other management officials; however, employees are prohibited from using this equipment for any other purposes (e.g., employees may only use their DHS electronic devices for one-way communication to monitor the status of the furlough, which is strictly an option … Failure to follow this policy may result in a violation of law, specifically the ADA, which has a criminal component, and may result in severe penalties.
The government’s housing assistance agency prohibits the use of government-owned devices in no uncertain terms.
“When in a furlough status, you are prohibited from using HUD provided devices (such as laptops, iPads, cell phones) during the furlough,” the guidance states, adding that employees cannot use other devices to access HUD IT services remotely, either.
The space agency’s guidance is a bit murkier. The contingency plan advises employees to prepare for the worst by creating a backup list of important phone numbers, email address, etc., in case they don’t have access to their government devices.
Specifically, the guidance states (emphasis added): “During a shutdown furlough, government-owned resources (e.g., cell phones, email accounts, etc.) may not be authorized to be used.”
Employees with the Office of Personnel Management have possibly the clearest guidance of any agency.
In a section of the guidance explaining how employees will be notified when the shutdown is lifted, it notes that calling them on government cell phones probably won’t be an option. “Most of the furloughed employees do not carry government-issued smartphones, so that is not a viable option for communicating the end of a government shutdown.”
The SEC guidance reminds employees that they cannot use government devices to conduct any official government business—per the rules of a shutdown—but does not say anything about personal uses. Best to check with your manager, but the guidance doesn’t prohibit incidental use.
Similar to the CDC, State Department employees will be able to hang on to their devices during a shutdown but have been instructed to turn them off. The guidance also states that excepted personnel working through a shutdown should not be communicating with non-excepted employees on furlough.
Other large agencies have developed contingency plans but not all cover mobile phones and devices. Nextgov reviewed shutdown plans for the departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior, Justice, Labor, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, Executive Office of the President, General Services Administration, Small Business Administration and Social Security Administration, none of which mentioned specific policies on government devices.
Editor's note: This article was updated with new guidance from the Office of Management and Budget.