Oct 02 2013

How the Government Shutdown Is Affecting Federal Technology

Take a look at how federal agencies are handling furloughs.

With 800,000 feds on furlough and many government websites gone dark, the government shutdown is having a major impact on technology initiatives and IT operations. Every agency is dealing with frustrated citizens and employees, not to mention major setbacks for mission-critical projects. Here’s a snapshot of where a few agencies are right now.

Have a story about your furlough experience? Let us know in the Comments or tweet us.

Checking Email Is Illegal

Why can’t park rangers offer tours for free? And why can’t CIOs catch up on email? Because it’s illegal. That’s right — there is a law forbidding furloughed feds to work, lest the government be held accountable for their work when the shutdown ends. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias explains:

The reason is the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1884 as interpreted by the Justice Department of the late Carter years, with subsequent refinements by OMB and other relevant agencies. The basic logic of the Anti-Deficiency Act is to say that executive branch officials are not allowed to undertake actions that create financial obligations for the federal government that they have not received congressional funding for. The Navy, in other words, can't order up a bunch of ships and then when the bill comes due tell Congress that it needs to appropriate the money to pay for the ships lest the entire creditworthiness of the American military collapse.

Read Why Federal Workers Can't Volunteer to Work for Free on Slate.

Just before the shutdown, the Washington Post reported that federal workers who check email while furloughed are technically breaking the law.

In the event of a government shutdown — just 12 hours to go until the deadline — workers on furlough will be barred from accessing their work e-mail accounts, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

That means no "marking-as-read," "just peeking," or "catching up." Public servants who've been told to stay home may even be asked to hand over their mobile devices — just to make sure.

A few interesting tidbits about this:

  • The law, which is being applied to regulate email usage, was passed over 100 years ago.
  • Penalties for breaking the law could include fines and even jail time.
  • One wonders: If they can’t check email, how will they know when to go back to work?

Is the Shutdown Putting IT Security at Risk?

Quite possibly, yes. Most National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) employees are considered nonessential and have ceased work on their cybersecurity framework. A preliminary draft was expected on October 10.

"All work on the framework will stop for the duration because the framework and its staff are not [exempt from furloughs]," NIST spokeswoman Jennifer Huergo said hours before the shutdown.

IT security experts, meanwhile, say perceived disruptions caused by the shutdown could encourage America's cyber-adversaries to increase their attacks and probes on federal government IT systems and networks.

Read Shutdown's Impact on Federal IT Security on BankInfoSecurity.

Where Did All the Data Go?

With Data.gov frozen during the shutdown, no one can access the treasure trove of public data that was available for free just a few days ago. If you were working on an app, research project or political campaign, your data needs will just have to wait.

Politicians are still raising money. We still have a population, unemployment, and social problems. But if you want to look up some of those basic facts, well, Data.gov can't help you, you'll have to ask about those campaign donations later, and the Census will get back to you someday.

It's not 1995 anymore. The government lives on the Internet and so do we, and we can't just lose access to all the information they put online. We all understand why the Internet Archive keeps the Web on file for us. The only reliable way to preserve data online is to make copies — and the more copies, the better!

Interestingly, the Office of Management and Budget doesn’t care if shutting a website down is actually more expensive that keeping it running. Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation found this out in OMB’s September 17th memorandum.

Q5: What if the cost of shutting down a website exceeds the cost of maintaining services?

A5: The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services.

Read Government APIs Aren't A Backup Plan on the Sunlight Foundation blog.

NASA Will Gut It Out with Just Three Percent of Employees

Nearly 18,000 NASA employees — a full 97 percent of its workforce — have been furloughed, leaving just 600 people to maintain the health of the agency’s ongoing space initiatives, which include astronauts in the International Space Station. Two Americans are currently living in the space station with four other astronauts. International Business Times reports that since NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab employees are contractors, not federal employees, the Mars Curiosity Rover will continue collecting data and sending it back to Earth.

How is the shutdown affecting your agency? Let us know in the Comments.