Agencies face serious game of catch-up when shutdown ends

Although the second government shutdown was affecting fewer
agencies and government personnel than the first, the impact proved more focused and
intense for some federal computer operations.


Nine cabinet departments and 38 agencies and commissions had their doors shuttered as a
result of the budget showdown. Information technology officials at some of those agencies
said the shutdown, which passed the 20-day mark last week, would have significant
repercussions for their operations.


"It's going to take some time to build back up...I think we're going to have to be
rethinking some entire projects," said Mark A. Boster, deputy assistant attorney
general for IRM.


Determinations about which Justice Department programs would be halted or scaled back
will not be made until after employees return, he said. "We're going to have to step
back and reassess all the projects' schedules and look at what we've lost," Boster
said.


The furloughing of some 280,000 federal employees is having an effect even on those
agencies that already have their funding for fiscal 1996.


"We have our full complement" of workers, said Mac Lemet, acting director of
the Financial Services Division at the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center in
New Orleans. "It's a good thing, because we need them to handle the extra work we are
doing."


NFC provides payroll services for the departments of Housing and Urban Development,
Justice and Commerce, as well as for the Smithsonian Institution and a host of smaller
agencies. It produces paychecks for 150,000 workers to 175,000 workers who have been
affected by the furlough.


Many clerks who send in the time and attendance reports from which NFC figures payrolls
were off the job, classified as non-emergency workers, Lemet said. NFC was generating the
T&A reports, based on agencies' accounts of the number of hours to be credited to
workers before the continuing resolution expired Dec. 15 and accounts of which workers
were classified as emergency workers for the subsequent weeks.


"It's the least we can do for our customers," Lemet said.


But there is much NFC cannot do, he said. "The big problem is that people are
going to be paid less than 80 hours" for the first pay period following the shutdown,
he said.


At the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs, some computer operators were at
work, but they didn't have all the files they needed to do their jobs.


"We were told to come in," said Grace Livingston, a computer operator at the
BIA Operations Service Center in Albuquerque. "There are a few of us here, both main
shift and swing shift."


Three computer operators were working on the main shift in late December rather than
four, and two on the swing shift, down from the usual five. But there was not much for
them to do. Computer operators in Albuquerque depend on files from Denver to process
federal royalty payments to some 25,000 members of Indian tribes.


"Denver has been furloughed, so we didn't get the files," Livingston said.
"We can't do anything about that now. It's really sad. A lot of people rely on that
money."


At the Commerce Department, IRM support for critical services such as the National
Weather Service and export enforcement was being maintained, said CIO Alan P. Balutis. But
one area in which operations lagged was the Bureau of Export Administration, where export
license applications continued to arrive in a steady stream of 35 to 40 a day.


At the State Department, critical communications for overseas staff were being
maintained during the shutdown, but at the possible expense of future performance.


"In some areas we are not doing the routine maintenance," a spokesman said.
"The potential for failures increases when you can't do the preventive
maintenance."


Problems could be magnified by the need to catch up on routine data processing that has
had to wait. The department either will have to pay for overtime to catch up or will have
to wait for work to be completed, the spokesman said.


"If you've been furloughed for three weeks, there will be a three-week slippage in
schedules," he said. "I don't see any other alternative."


At the Environmental Protection Agency, only personnel "necessary to protect life
and property" were called in, with some employees on an on-call basis, said Paul
Wohlleben, acting IRM director. He estimated that about 90 percent of his work force was
out of work.


Out of an IT staff of 75 at EPA's National Data Processing Division in Research
Triangle, N.C., a dozen people were still at work, said Jerry Slaymaker, division
director. The bulk of those employees were at the data center maintaining services for
workers still on the job, although a handful were keeping networks up in Washington, and a
few were on a fire watch at the agency's supercomputer center in Bay City, Mich., which
was shut down.


"It's really a credit to the whole organization" that the infrastructure
"is able to be operated by a few people for a short time," Slaymaker said.
"But we couldn't go on very long this way."


Wohlleben said the furlough has a multiplying effect the longer it goes on, as dates
pass for long-scheduled meetings that can take weeks in advance to plan.


"We pretty much have not made tremendous project headway [el1] all fiscal
year," he said. "We've lost a lot of momentum."


EPA's Slaymaker said the first real problems the agency faces may not be with hardware
or software, however.


"I suspect the largest immediate impact will be some contractor turnover," he
said. Lockheed Martin handles much of EPA's data processing operations.


"I'm getting reports that a lot of them are saying they can't deal with this. They
can move on someplace else. That's going to be a problem," Slaymaker said.


Many government contractors will lose employees who are unwilling to go weeks without
paychecks, both companies and IRM officials suggested.


One official of a company that does a lot of federal business said his organization had
not lost any employees yet. But, he added, "I have to believe that is crossing
people's minds." He would speak only on condition of anonymity.


Justice's Boster said there are indications that contractors, especially the small
ones, are under increasing financial pressure. "I suspect we're going to lose
them," he said.


"There's a tremendous stress on them as well--their ability to keep the people
together," Wohlleben said.


But he said many of EPA's contractors are excited by the work they are doing, and both
the vendors and their employees are "believers in the EPA mission."


"There's a straining point out there in the future," he acknowledged.
"I'm sure people are concerned, but I don't think they're turning that concern on the
EPA. They're turning that concern on the political process."


Some agencies that were funded saw little impact from the shutdown that surrounded
them, which also helped some vendors. PRC Inc., for instance, reported little effect,
since many of its client agencies were funded.



About the Authors


William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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