In shutdown, some fed IT pros show just why they're essential

"This is Bob Morris. Unfortunately, I've have been deemed a
nonessential employee for purposes of the government shutdown. I will return to work when
we have a continuing resolution or a federal budget."


For six days, that message played on the voice mail of Robert A. Morris, director of
national network operations at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


He was not alone. During the longest government shutdown ever, many systems staffers,
computer programmers and IRM bosses found themselves--like Morris--sent packing.


Nationwide, more than 800,000 federal employees were deemed nonessential and sent home
at a cost of about $120 million a day, while the White House and Congress stood toe to toe
in their budget standoff. With the new continuing resolution, the administration and
lawmakers have until Dec. 15 to resolve their budget disagreements.


Agencies covered by the five 1996 appropriations bills signed into law by President
Clinton can operate at those new levels. Agencies covered by the seven other
appropriations bills will need to make immediate cuts to comply with the intricate interim
funding agreement.


Under the continuing resolution, if the House or Senate has approved funding for an
agency, it must operate at its 1995 spending level or at any lower level approved by
either house. For programs where no fiscal 1996 appropriations have been approved, the
resolution provides funds at 75 percent of the fiscal 1995 level.


The deal Clinton reached with Congress also provides back pay for furloughed workers
and calls for a balanced budget by 2002.


During the shutdown, the government's data centers, for the most part, kept their
systems running, if not operating at top capacity. To keep systems on line, agencies
designated data center crews as essential, turned to industrial funds or used leftover
fiscal 1995 cash, an informal survey of agencies showed.


For instance, at the Justice Department, almost everyone went home except for law
enforcement officers and a skeleton crew that ran the agency's data centers in Rockville,
Md., and Dallas, Justice officials said.


Ditto at the Veterans Affairs Department, which kept about 10 percent of its staff at
the data center in Austin, Texas, working on operational databases that support the VA
health care delivery system. The department also kept on the job some of its
telecommunications workers supporting VA hospitals, said Nada Harris, deputy assistant
secretary of VA for IRM.


VA kept all its data centers running and maintained its mainframe-based benefits
delivery system as well. But no new claims were accepted during the shutdown. "Our
principle concern is the maintenance of our health care system and the delivery of
benefits," Harris said.


Fortunately for FEMA, the shutdown came after the close of the annual hurricane season
and before winter storms set in, and there were no earthquakes, floods or major wildfires.


"It occurred at a nice lull," FEMA spokesman Bill Zellars said. "It was
not a major effort to maintain the electronic information sources."


FEMA kept its data centers open but with a reduced staff. Servers for the agency's
World Wide Web page and its fax-on-demand services are maintained by a vendor, so access
was not interrupted. No new information was loaded on these systems during the shutdown,
but "short-term like that, it was not a problem," Zellars said.


About half the State Department's domestic employees remained on the job, most of them
at the department's communications and computer centers, which were kept at full strength,
said Harry Geisel, deputy assistant secretary for information management. The staff had to
preserve comm links with the overseas employees, most of whom kept working during the
shutdown.


"Without us, there are no links," Geisel said. "Just about everybody
else has been sent home."


As time wore on, however, it became more likely that agencies would have to shut down
their mainframe systems and their networks, said John Ortego, director of the General
Services Administration's Federal Systems Management Center. He said protecting federal
data soon would have become a major issue.


"If we're not going back to work soon, then we have to be sure we safeguard data
center operations," he said during the furlough.


Meanwhile at GSA, the Federal Telecommunications Service and the disaster recovery
service staff, which maintains local and long-haul telecom and data services for
government agencies, stayed on the job.


John Okay, deputy commissioner of FTS, said the entire staff was deemed essential.
"It's business as usual for us," he said.


The chief concern at NASA during the government shutdown was ensuring that what was up
stayed up.


That meant not only the Shuttle Atlantis, scheduled to dock with the Russian Mir space
station the day after furloughs began, but "all of our assets, whether in low earth
orbit, high earth orbit or deep space," NASA news and information chief Brian Welch
said.


The daily work of producing software, training and simulation materials required to
keep future shuttle launches on schedule also continued at the Kennedy Space Center.
"And then everybody else is going home," Welch said.


Everybody else included about 19,000 of the 21,000 NASA employees.


For workers at the Patent and Trademark Office, getting to and from work seemed the
biggest problem presented by the shutdown.


"We got two internal e-mail memos this morning telling us that we should go on,
business as usual, but advising us that car- and van-pools might be affected,"
computer engineer Wesley H. Clark of the Office of Systems Engineering said on Nov. 14.
"We're 100 percent fee-funded, so we're OK."


Also OK was the National Weather Service, which had about 10 days of unexpended 1995
funds to keep it going before it would have had to shift into shutdown mode, spokeswoman
Stephanie Kenitzer said. And even in a shutdown, only about 600 of the service's 5,500
employees would have been sent home.


"All of the communications systems will remain functioning," Kenitzer said.


Throughout the Commerce Department, 12,784 of 36,689 workers were labeled essential,
chief information office Alan Balutis said, noting that most of those kept on were in PTO
and NWS. The department's computer center in Springfield, Va., remained up and running,
Balutis said.


On Capitol Hill, the closure quieted the halls but many offices remained open with
small staffs."We're here doing the government's business," one House staffer
said.


The House's legislative World Wide Web page, Thomas, operated by the Library of
Congress, was closed.


Although all uniformed personnel were exempted from the shutdown, tens of thousands of
civilian Defense Department employees were not.


The Defense Information Systems Agency furloughed 1,879 of its 7,350 civilian
employees, according to spokeswoman Betsy McDonald. But almost none of these staffers were
pulled from activities that might affect military operations.


Col. Peter Jones, the interim commander of DISA's western hemisphere division, which
runs DOD's 16 data processing megacenters, said the centers essentially were unaffected
because they are funded by the Defense Business Operations Fund.


DBOF is a revolving fund fed by the operations and maintenance budgets of the military
services and agencies, and so is not directly controlled by congressional appropriations.
There were reserves sufficient for about five days of operations.


DISA officials were preparing to scale back data center operations the day the shutdown
ended. But few data center jobs would be considered nonessential anyway, Jones said.


"Our manning out there is so thin that virtually everyone is involved in
production work. There are very few administrative layers. Most people are running around
with a [data] tape in their hands," he said.


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