There's No Tech Roadmap for this Shutdown

The last time politicians closed government down, a cat named Socks ruled the first White House website.

A lot has changed since 1995, the last time the government shut down for a significant length of time. Especially when it comes to information technology.

The White House only launched its official website in 1994, after all, and its most popular feature was a profile of the Clintons’ cat Socks.

People didn’t talk much about how IT would be affected by the last shutdown, said Alan Balutis, who headed the Commerce Department’s management and budget office then and later became the agency’s chief information officer.

I spoke with Balutis on Wednesday about his experience during that shutdown and how  it compares to what federal employees are facing today. Balutis is now a director at Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group

“It was an era of mainframes and computer centers and burgeoning use of email, but only for messaging purposes,” Balutis said of 1995, noting that even sending an agency-wide email was an onerous task at the time because of different email systems across the department.

When employees left on furlough, he said, there was no presumption that, once the shutdown ended, officials could simply call them back by email or a website post and expect them to show up hours later. Instead, officials urged furloughed employees to read the Washington Post or watch local television news to learn when they were welcome back.

Instead of speaking of technology writ large, shutdown planners focused on what lines of business were essential and then asked what IT systems were necessary to support them, he said.

“Also, you still had a generation of pre-Y2K employees -- and I don’t  say this facetiously -- who actually knew how to do their work without relying on technology,” he said. “Because they were brought up and educated in an era when they learned to do a lot of things manually. Now  technology is so ingrained and essential, it’s so much a part of how you do work and how you do business that that just feels like ages ago.”