Shutdown roulette – what are the real effects on government?

What will a government shutdown really mean for federal employees and government HR offices if it goes into effect next week? Advice from someone who knows - fo...

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

The press is filled with reports of a pending government shutdown and what the political effects may be. Who will be blamed? Republicans? Democrats? All of them? With all of the focus on the politics, it is probably a good time to look at some of the effects on the real world of government.

(Courtesy of Jeff Neal)


If a shutdown occurs, some employees will be sent home. Others who are doing law enforcement, health, safety, security and other work that is deemed essential to safety and health will stay on the job. Others whose work is funded by fees, permanent appropriations or other non-apprpriated sources may also keep working.

Essential for shutdown purposes is not the same as essential for weather or other emergencies. Every agency has developed and, is most likely updating, their shutdown plans.

When I was chief human capital officer for DHS, in 2011 we developed shutdown plans for the department that outlined who would continue working and why. The Washington Post did a great article following that shutdown near-miss and described the 2011 shutdown plans for most agencies. It is still available on the Post’s website. On September 23, DoD issued shutdown guidance to its workforce, including OPM’s 2011 guidance on shutdown furloughs. DoD’s Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service also issued an excellent Q&A.

Other than those whose work is funded by non-appropriated dollars, there may be no means of paying the employees who must continue to work. If a shutdown continues beyond a pay period, people may be working but not getting paid until after the shutdown is over. Refusing to work during that period is not an option – employees who are told to report for work must comply or face disciplinary action. Those who are required to report cannot take leave. The reason for being exempt or excepted does not extend to sick or annual leave, or to holidays. For those who are not working, pay for the shutdown days is not guaranteed. In the past, the Congress has voted to make those employees whole, but there is no requirement that they do so. Employees who are sent home because of a shutdown will have to rely on the good will of the Congress.

HR Offices

At the headquarters level, HR offices are actively engaged in shutdown planning. That means they are helping update the plans, responding to employee questions, and dealing with the logistics of notifying employees of their status as exempt (source of money) or excepted (type of work) from being sent home, or subject to being sent home when the shutdown occurs.

They have to look at vacancy announcements that may close during a shutdown and decide whether to extend closing dates now. There may not be a choice in cases where collective bargaining agreements require announcements to be open for a minimum number of business days. That could lead to delays in filling jobs after the shutdown is over.

There are also issues to deal with regarding people who plan to retire while the shutdown is in effect, employees who are injured on the job, training that is contracted for and scheduled, and countless others.

HR is working with the chief financial officer, chief operating officer (usually the deputy secretary), the general counsel, OPM, OMB and the agency head to communicate with the unions and keep them up to date on what is happening.

In 2011, some agencies wanted to do the communications with employees and unions earlier than they did, but had to wait for clearance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to do so. OMB was hesitant to provide clearance, in part, because of the likelihood the administration would be accused of planning for a shutdown rather than trying to work with the Congress to get the budget standoff resolved. The truth is they absolutely had to do both. Not planning for a potential shutdown would have been grossly irresponsible. This year the planning appears to be more transparent and guidance is more readily available.

Quick Reference Guide to Determine Exempt and Excepted Positions

I’ve been asked by a number of people if there is such a guide. The answer is no. Each agency has to make decisions regarding positions that are exempt or excepted, following guidance from OMB and the Department of Justice. DoJ issued an opinion in 1995 that shows the complexity of the decision-making process. There are so many issues to consider that each agency or department has to review its own positions and make those decisions. While some are easy, many are judgment calls and the agency responsible for the work is in the best position to make those decisions.

The Value of Shutdowns

One thing we learned in the 2011 shutdown drill was the futility of it for federal agencies and the taxpayers. We consumed millions of dollars planning for something that is a constitutional responsibility of Congress and the president. We produced no benefits for taxpayers, didn’t make our borders more secure, didn’t improve national security, didn’t protect the environment or anything else constructive.

We planned because we had no prudent option to do otherwise. Productive work was diminished or stopped, and nothing came of it. As leaders in agencies that had real work to do, my colleagues and I found it maddening. People who are in government today are saying the same thing about the precious time and resources they are being forced to expend on a wasteful exercise.

It reminds me of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Just substitute shutdown for life in this quote:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Let’s hope the idea of shutting down the government has its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.

Copyright 2013 by Jeff Neal. All rights reserved.

Jeff Neal is founder of the blog,, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.


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