A Government Shutdown Doesn’t Always Mean Shutting Down IT

FILE - In this Oct., ... ]

FILE - In this Oct., ... ] Susan Walsh/AP File Photo

These are the tech employees who have to work if appropriated funds run out.

Government shutdowns—and, more so, the specter of impending shutdowns—are stressful times for federal employees, which can be made more difficult when people aren’t sure whether they are among those excepted employees expected to come into work. For IT staff, this can be particularly murky, as technology touches nearly every aspect of operations today and can often be inextricably linked to critical agency missions focused on protecting life and property.

In its 2013 guidance for creating shutdown contingency plans, the Office of Management and Budget addresses the issue directly, stating that IT operations—and the employees managing those operations—can only continue “if they are excepted activities under the Antideficiency Act, or where their continuation is necessarily implied from a congressional authorization or appropriation of other continued functions.”

Once those functions are identified, agencies must devise a way to maintain those systems at the lowest possible level, with the fewest possible employees.

The guidance continues [emphasis added]:

If a single system must operate to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities, only this system should maintain operations, and support for continued operation of the single system (whether by agency IT staff or by a contractor) should be the minimum necessary to maintain functionality and ensure the security and integrity of the system during the period of the lapse. If the integration of that system with other systems makes it infeasible to maintain operation of the single system without maintaining others with which it is integrated, an agency must provide guidance on operations consistent with avoiding any imminent threat to federal property (including avoiding any permanent disruption to agency IT systems and ensuring preservation of agency electronic records). Given that websites represent the front-end of numerous back-end processing systems, agencies must determine whether the entire website can be shut down or components of the website will be shut down.

In the individual agency contingency plans, minimum functionality ranges from systems supporting national security to those maintaining email and mobile devices for other excepted positions.

Which functions would remain operational during a shutdown varies from agency to agency, office to office. To cut through some of the confusion, and provide a comparison of contingency plans, here’s a look at how major federal agencies plan to deal with IT during a shutdown.

Commerce Department (Last updated in 2015)

One of the largest departments, Commerce’s contingency plan calls for keeping a number of IT employees through a shutdown.

The Patent and Trademark Office would retain the most IT employees, requesting exceptions for 56 staffers, including project managers, IT supervisors and other specialists.

The Office of the CIO at Commerce identified eight exceptions, including the CIO, deputy CIO, CISO and five IT specialists. All would be considered excepted in order to “protect life and property,” including maintaining critical systems for national security and the cybersecurity of the department’s systems.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology would keep a computer scientist and IT specialist to maintain the national vulnerability database and another IT specialist at the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence.

For most other offices, the plan includes keeping the CIO and a minimum number of support staff in the office.

Education Department (Last updated in 2016)

The Education Department’s plan doesn’t call out any IT positions specifically. Rather, it notes that over 90 percent of the department’s staff would be furloughed, carving out only the basic functions covered by the Antideficiency Act.

Environmental Protection Agency (Last updated in 2017)

EPA’s IT workforce would largely get a break during a shutdown.

“Unless otherwise identified as being a mission-critical system that would support activities outlined … in this contingency plan, most agency IT systems, including network operations, should be scaled back to basic operational status. This means eliminating all activities associated with upgrades, development, deployment and scaling back contract and on-call activities (both fed and contractor),” according to the plan.

General Services Administration (Last updated in 2017)

GSA’s contingency plan notes that the IT office is “completely funded through the Working Capital Fund, which is an exempt funding source.” The agency’s IT employees would be expected to continue showing up for work until that fund begins to dwindle, at which time the “office may initiate a phased shutdown based on available resources.”

Health and Human Services Department (Last updated in 2017)

The health department developed a list of critical services and the associated excepted personnel needed to maintain those services. Included under “activities to protect property,” the department requests 443 excepted employees to “maintain computer data” at the Food and Drug Administration, Health Resources and Services Administration, Indian Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Housing and Urban Development Department (Last updated in 2017)

The housing department’s shutdown plan provides for basic upkeep of IT systems in support of excepted services. The plan details the duties of the CIO and deputy CIO before, during and immediately after a shutdown and gives a list of 76 critical systems to be maintained throughout.

Justice Department (Last updated in 2014)

In noting the General Administration account—which funds the leadership and senior policy and management offices—can be used to continue paying excepted, politically appointed employees, the Justice Department plan notes that IT support can continue “for departmentwide operations that protect life and property.”

The plan also carves out an exception for employees manning the security operations center, which manages cybersecurity for the department’s systems.

“In addition, these employees are needed for information technology operations and systems that support ongoing law enforcement operations that will continue during any lapse in appropriations,” the plan states.

Labor Department (Last updated in 2017)

Labor’s Office of the CIO falls under the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management, which would take a significant hit during a shutdown, retaining only 64 of its 763 employees. Of those, 14 IT employees at the national office and six employees in regional offices (one for each office) would be kept on to maintain basic services.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration also requested six exemptions, including the director, program analyst and staffers in the Office of Technology and Information. The Office of the CFO asked to retain the director of security and technology and an IT specialist.

Other offices also requested minimal IT support services, including maintaining BlackBerry and email services for excepted employees.

National Science Foundation (Last updated in 2017)

The technology-heavy agency would dramatically scale back its IT services during a shutdown.

“NSF information technology systems will be reduced to minimum operations to maintain equipment, security and essential operations in support of other excepted activities and to maintain emergency communications,” the plan states. The latter task—emergency communications—would be particularly important for NSF workers in remote outposts, such as the South Pole.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Last updated in 2017)

The commission’s plan calls for limited “administrative and information technology support,” but does allow for “limited activities in the areas of building operations, security, mail, contracts, computer network control, records storage and retrieval and automated data processing hardware and software maintenance.”

Small Business Administration (Last updated in 2015)

The agency’s contingency plan calls for retention of seven employees within the Office of the CIO during a shutdown to maintain and ensure the cybersecurity of department systems. That staff will oversee “orderly shutdown services and protection of government property,” according to the plan. These positions include the acting CIO, CISO, four IT specialists focused on infrastructure operations and one to manage cybersecurity operations.

Other offices would retain IT specialists, as well, including:

  • Three at the Office of the CFO.
  • One at the El Paso Disaster Loan Servicing Center.
  • Two at the Birmingham Disaster Loan Servicing Center.
  • One at the Santa Ana National Disaster Loan Resolution Center.

This brings the total number to 14.

Social Security Administration (Last updated in 2015)

The only mention of IT management in the Social Security’s plan concerns returning to work after the shutdown is lifted. The four-part plan for resuming regular operations includes, “Ensuring that IT systems are up and running smoothly for employees returning to work.”

State Department (Last updated in 2016)

The State Department’s guidance is more general than other agencies’ and focusing on classes and location of employees more than job functions. The plan does not mention technology operations, CIOs or cybersecurity concerns during a shutdown.

Transportation Department (Last updated in 2016)

Transportation’s plan calls for shutting down most of the agency’s operations within one day. However, much of the agency’s mission includes regulating safe travel, and IT staff are necessary for those efforts.

“Individuals providing support services to safety position will report to work to provide employees excepted for the purpose of directly protecting life and property with necessary legal, information technology, labor relation and contract support services,” the plan states.

Other administrative duties around IT would be suspended.

Veterans Affairs Department (Last updated in 2017)

Due to the vast majority of VA employee salaries being funded by advance appropriations, the department’s plan calls for 95.5 percent of employees to remain at work during a shutdown, including more than half the IT staff.

The department “designated services provided by the Office of Information Technology as excepted functions related to the department’s need to protect life and property, since these functions provide the enterprisewide infrastructure and support that facilitates health care services at Veterans Health Administration facilities throughout VA,” according to the plan.

Of the 7,906 employees at OI&T, 4,801 would be fully funded or excepted during a shutdown.