A Government Shutdown Doesn’t Mean All the IT Shuts Down

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Both baseline infrastructure and critical IT systems have to stay on during a shutdown, which means some IT staff won’t be furloughed.

Shutting down the government doesn’t mean taking everything offline, as some IT systems are as critical as employees excepted from furlough. But discovering which IT employees would stay on during a shutdown can be difficult.

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.

Agriculture Department (Last updated December 2017)

Some IT staff at the Agriculture Department will be expected to stay to continue operating infrastructure and apps related to critical functions. Most employees will be sent home at the start of a shutdown. But on day 2, the Office of the Chief Information Officer will have to submit a list of critical employees needed to keep important systems up and running.

The Integrated Acquisition System that manages contract obligations will be shut off temporarily during a shutdown, with contract actions being processed manually during the interim. However, the system will have to be brought online for four days out of every 12-day period in order to sync with the financial management system.

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 the minimum number of support staff in the office.

Homeland Security Department (Last updated March 2018)

The guidance for Homeland Security is clear about the use of technology equipment—like smartphones and desktops—will continue with exempt functions but doesn’t go into detail on which IT employees would be needed.

However, the Office of Chief Counsel notes it will need four employees to stay on for up to three days to close out several functions, including “information technology … actions.”

Housing and Urban Development Department (Last updated in January 2018)

The housing department’s shutdown plan provides for basic upkeep of IT systems in support of excepted services, which will require at least some tech staff to stay on. The Office of the CIO will be expected to keep HUD’s application suite up and running, as well as help desk support for all employees still at work.

The plan details the duties of the CIO and deputy CIO before, during and immediately after a shutdown and gives a list of 77 critical systems to be maintained throughout.

Interior Department (Last updated in December 2017)

The contingency plan for the Interior Department says 273 employees would be excepted from the shutdown, including some IT staff, though it does not include a breakdown.

Interior officials are instructed to look at two factors when determining whether an individual IT system should be exempted from the shutdown: Would it cause a permanent disruption to those systems or the loss of information; and would it pose a threat to the security, confidentiality and integrity of those systems?

The guidance notes “agency cybersecurity functions” are excepted, writ-large.

An additional document details guidance for components’ websites and social media accounts, which mostly amounts to “don’t update.”

When in doubt, Interior officials warn: “Working when not authorized, during a shutdown, would be a violation of the Antideficiency Act. Don’t do that.”

Justice Department (Last updated in January 2018)

The Justice Department guidance does not give a specific number of IT staff needed but does note the Justice Information Sharing Technology and Working Capital Fund IT systems will need to remain up and running, as well as the Justice Security Operations Center, which handles cybersecurity departmentwide.

“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.

State Department (Last updated in March 2018)

The State Department’s guidance is more general than other agencies’ and focuses 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.

Treasury Department (Last updated in December 2017)

Treasury Department IT employees will have to stick around to cover four critical IT functions for the remaining personnel through the shutdown:

  • Managing and operating essential IT infrastructure services, including telecommunications and Treasury’s network services such as email, voicemail and internet.
  • Maintaining Treasury’s computer security incident response and emergency operations capability to monitor and protect Treasury’s technology infrastructure and ensure emergency communications.
  • Supporting Treasury’s classified IT systems.
  • Maintaining basic support to excepted federal entities for the automated personnel system, HR Connect.
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