Government Shutdown: How the Cloud Impacts Affected Agencies

Cloud services can keep running if federal contracts are structured properly, experts say.

Day 18 of the partial government shutdown dawned on Jan. 8, with no clear end in sight. However, federal cloud services will remain running — if agencies have structured their contracts in a way that keeps them going. 

The Treasury Department as well as the departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, the Interior, State, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Commerce and Justice have been shuttered, as have several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. The shutdown affects about 800,000 federal workers, 380,000 of whom are furloughed, with 420,000 working without pay. 

Some of the “nonessential” federal employees who are currently furloughed include cybersecurity workers and other skilled IT workers, says Kevin Cummins, vice president of technology at the Professional Services Council. 

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out which federal IT trends you need to keep an eye on in 2019.

How Cloud Services Are Impacted by the Government Shutdown 

Federal agencies’ use of the cloud has increased significantly since the last major government shutdown in 2013. Cloud services contract obligations were expected to increase by about 32 percent in fiscal year 2018, reaching an all-time high of about $6.5 billion, according to an analysis by Bloomberg Government.

“There is now more reliance on remote access to data through cloud and other data storage services, so that the government needs to own less and buy more as a service,” Cummins says. 

Shawn McCarthy, director of research at IDC Government Insights, says that if an agency’s system is hosted in the cloud, “and if fees have been paid up through the end of this quarter (or beyond), there is, in theory, no reason why a system hosted for the government should be shut down.”

However, McCarthy says, some agencies and government network managers may have security concerns about such arrangements while workers are furloughed. “If they are responsible for maintaining security, and if government IT staff is minimized because of the shutdown, there could be reasons for taking a system offline,” he says. 

“Likewise, if security, network management, security audits, etc., are handled by a third party, and if (again) all fees have been paid for the current time period, some of these solutions could be left online,” he adds. “Circumstances vary per agency.”

Agencies’ IT operations could be impacted, however, if there is no back-end infrastructure (or personnel) up and running to support services. That is true even if agencies are using chatbots and other technologies to stand in for human workers and respond to customer service requests. 

“Nothing runs itself; there still has to be a back end that’s sustaining the system,” Cummins says. “The contracts have to be written so that even chatbots — or other platforms of customer service — keep going in a government shutdown.”

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IT Modernization Efforts May Be Affected by Shutdown

One of the vehicles for driving IT modernization forward has been the President’s Management Agenda, which emphasizes workforce improvements, technology modernization and data management reform and has a series of cross-agency goals. 

FedScoop reports: “The White House has emphasized its adherence to quarterly milestones to ensure those reform efforts would progress, but with appropriations for 25 percent of the government ceasing, many interconnected goals of the PMA could come to a stop.”

“PMA quarterly goals are funded through multiple vehicles, so some goals may be unaffected by the lapse while others may, in fact, be affected,” an unnamed senior administration official told FedScoop on Jan. 4. 

The efforts include cloud email adoption, technology asset management, and workforce recruitment and reskilling programs. 

Shared Services May Stop if Fees Dry Up

Shared services could also be affected by the shutdown, depending on how long it lasts. Agencies across the government use services from the General Services Administration and from the departments of Defense, Agriculture, Treasury and Interior to manage common systems such as payroll and property management, Nextgov reports. Only the Pentagon is unaffected by the current shutdown. 

However, shared services will still be available to agencies, as long as the agencies can pay for them

Professional Services Council Executive Vice President and Counsel Alan Chvotkin explains to Nextgov that, in most cases, shared services offices stay open because they are funded by fee-for-service agreements, not appropriations from Congress.

“There are still funds available from prior payments, so they will operate as long as they have money available,” Chvotkin says. “They’re not subject to the new appropriations.” However, once those funds dry up, agencies may not be able to pay for shared services, he adds.

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Jan 08 2019

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