Agencies are taking the unexpectedly protracted event as motivation to bolster their ability to ride out and recover from future shutdowns, should they occur.

Nov 13 2019

How Feds Can Benefit from Lessons Learned from the Government Shutdown

In the aftermath of the longest government shutdown in history, agencies use the experience to better prepare in case there’s a next time.

The immediate impact of the 35-day partial government shutdown earlier this year was emotional and quantifiable: lost pay, lost projects, lost time and plenty of frustration. And the long-term effect of the longest shutdown in U.S. history still resonates.

In a report released on Sept. 17, agencies told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee panel on investigations that they had fears about being able to hire in the future; that they paid $2.3 billion in back pay and another $180 million in administrative costs (compared with $1.3 billion and $157 million, respectively, in 2013, for a shutdown that lasted 16 days and affected the entire government); and that important projects, including 60,000 hearings on immigration status and NASA’s moon and Mars missions, were delayed at a cost.

But they’re also taking the unexpectedly protracted event as motivation to bolster their ability to ride out and recover from future shutdowns, should they occur — for instance, by working to prevent the expired passwords, data backlogs and delayed procurements from happening again.

“I think the impact of this shutdown is more significant than we’ve ever seen,” says Michael Hettinger, founding principal of the Hettinger Strategy Group in Arlington, Va. “It wasn’t just that the shutdown dragged on for so long, but the fact that no one really expected — or was prepared for — the sheer length of it.”

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Government Shutdown Shuttered Websites, IT Infrastructure 

IT departments at affected agencies experienced no major disasters, but in some cases had to shut down important websites — including the Department of Homeland Security’s critical E-Verify system used by employers to ensure their workers are legally in the country — or delay projects such as system patching.

At the National Institute of Standards and Technology, much of the IT infrastructure was shut down, especially systems used for internal processing. The agency also took down its website because it could not be updated. But some programs remained operational, with IT personnel running the necessary support and safety systems. 

Issues unique to the shutdown did arise, says NIST spokesperson Jennifer Huergo. “Consolidation of NIST services onto common platforms such as the NIST web presence created some new dependencies that were discovered after the shutdown began,” she explains. “These were relatively minor, though, and were easily resolved by the IT staff.”

Jonathan Alboum, Former CIO, Agriculture Department
Just as your agency would prepare for a hurricane or other disaster, you need to apply those same steps to the possibility of a shutdown.”

Jonathan Alboum Former CIO, Agriculture Department

Because the shutdown lasted so long, it took more time than expected to get the NIST infrastructure back to full operational status. Although the NIST team was able to get basic services up and running before employees returned to work, secondary and financial systems took longer to restore.

The real challenge wasn’t in firing the systems back up, Huergo says, “but making sure that the data that had accumulated in feeder systems during the furlough was properly processed and the systems were current. That required us to follow a plan that takes several days to complete.” 

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GSA Gets Site Back Online Quickly 

The General Services Administration IT team also ran into unexpected issues. Despite working from documented guidance and best practices, the team struggled to take, home to more than 200,000 government open-data sets, offline. Because the site is not static and constantly takes in data, it needs to be consistently monitored by staff that are subject to furlough.

The process of taking the site down required coordination with personnel outside of the team, some of whom were not available within that short window.

As a result, “parts of that process were not able to be completed within the few hours we had allotted for orderly shutdown. The complete shutdown required more time,” says GSA spokesperson Matthew Burrell.

Once went dark, however, the team was able to maintain site security and integrity, and when the government reopened, the team brought the site back online immediately.

“Updates to the site, including the addition of new data sets from agency sources, resumed shortly thereafter,” Burrell says.

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Government Shutdown Has Ripple Effects for IT

Where the shutdown proved most problematic was in IT contracting support, acquisition, modernization and hiring, according to Jonathan Alboum, former CIO of the Department of Agriculture.

“Unfortunately, in anything that involves people and process, a five-week delay is never a five-week delay,” he says. “It’s 10 weeks, 20 weeks or even longer. After the shutdown, agencies have had to play catch up.


The percentage of federal employees who say it is likely that there will be another government shutdown in fiscal 2020

Source: Market Connections, “Delivering on Mission? Effects of the 2019 Federal Government Shutdown,” January 2019

Some contractors couldn’t pay their employees during the work stoppage, for example, which resulted in many key employees permanently moving on to other jobs. In those cases, projects were stalled as contractors had to hire and train new employees, delaying project end dates.

Contractors weren’t alone; agencies told the Senate committee that the shutdown made it difficult for them to hire and retain employees

Likewise, many procurement efforts were halted. The Housing and Urban Development Department had hoped to start getting industry input on standing up its Data Analytics Center of Excellence in early 2019. The shutdown delayed the agency’s request for information until May; it was working through the responses in September.

“Everything just slips,” says Hettinger. “People lose momentum, they lose focus. Things get reprioritized. You can’t just pick right back up where you left off, and so that’s where the shutdown really has a lot of negative effect.” 

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Agencies Need to Plan for Shutdowns All Year 

The most important lesson is to start being proactive, says Alboum, who worked for the federal government during the 16-day shutdown in 2013. Without a legislative fix that would minimize or ban the use of government shutdowns as a negotiating tool, agencies should plan and prepare all year — not when negotiations hit an impasse.

“Just as your agency would prepare for a hurricane or other disaster, you need to apply those same steps to the possibility of a shutdown,” Alboum says. 

“And through that process you can really have important agency conversations: What are the essential services? What things can we live without? What are the dependencies? How do we turn things off gracefully, and how do we also bring them back up gracefully?”

Another best practice, says Hettinger, is scheduling IT contract proposal releases and awards with a shutdown in mind. “Always plan for disruption, so if you’ve got a contract that you think you can get awarded and closed before September 30, get it done,” he says. “And if you can accelerate your spending, spread it out throughout the year.”

NIST is putting those ideas into practice. The agency didn’t have enough staff during the shutdown to keep up with patch management and maintenance cycle requirements, or to renew expiring passwords, PIV cards or SSL certificates.

The agency is practicing partial shutdown disaster scenarios, has increased its lead time and updated guidance for preshutdown activities, Huergo says.

“This can really be a call to arms,” Alboum says. “As hard as the shutdown was to go through, it won’t be in vain if you end up better prepared.”

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