|Jessie Owen - License:
Suppose you knew that sooner or later you would do something self-destructive. Perhaps you can’t stop yourself binge drinking. Or even self-harming. If you really can’t prevent yourself, maybe you can write a plan for how you’ll cope when you do reach for the bottle or the knife. But what about the morning afterward? Did you remember to include something in your plan about how you’ll manage your recovery?
I’m not sure that the US government has.
Newspapers and Twittersphere are full of comment about which party is to blame for the “partial” shutdown of US federal government, what it’s doing to the US and the world economy and how much worse it would be if the US were to default. There’s plenty of discussion about the plight of the veterans, the homeless, the litigants, citizens who need passports and others who use federal government services. There are stories about the plight of the workers “furloughed” – that’s being “laid off without pay but still technically employed” to you and me. (Oh, and while we’re thinking about being “technically employed”, you try resigning and taking up another job with tax and social security payments when there’s no one left in HR to register your resignation.)
But this is not just a political, an economic, a social policy or a labour relations problem. It is also a public management problem. In particular, restarting government will bring new headaches, on top of the ones caused during the shutdown itself.
Let’s think about the problems to be solved when staff start returning to work. To begin with the easy ones; a great many trucks, fleet cars, laptops and other “mobile assets” will be in the wrong places because they stood still when the government stopped. It will take a few days to get those back to where they should be. If the shutdown goes on so long that Amtrak runs out of money, trains will end up in the wrong places which will take days to resolve. If retained Transportation Security Agents working without pay at airports checking passengers and their baggage stop working, then planes could be in the wrong places when government restarts.
More serious, databases get out of date very quickly. Claimants, litigants and service users move house, change jobs, have children, even die. The longer the shutdown goes on, the worse the problem. Apart from the backlog problem this creates, all sorts of technical problems arise. Different databases find they can’t talk to each other: finding contradictory records, one system might try to correct another and pass on out-of-date information; alerts may not happen; records may get deleted. Not every system will work properly when turned on again. Data systems need constant maintenance if they are not to fall over.
Remember too that the shutdown began when some congressional Republicans held up the budget to wring concessions from Mr Obama’s health insurance programme. Before the shutdown, when “Obamacare” began its implementation, the scheme faced overwhelming demand. On restart day, many of the information systems on which it depends could be deluged.
Things get uglier when managers turn to their contractors. Supposedly, they should have rewritten contracts to limit the taxpayers’ liability. In theory, every department is already supposed to know just which contractors may work off site during the shutdown, what government assets such as data systems they can and can’t use , what cyber-security they are supposed to use,[i] and what these arrangements cost, especially if contractors must “down tools” when government does. But contractors may well be consulting their lawyers if they think the contract gives them a claim against departments for losses from having to stop working or from not being able to do their work properly because their client department is closed. Complicated, protracted negotiations and perhaps expensive settlements loom. Last year when the fear was of the “fiscal cliff”, the White House reassure contractors beforehand that taxpayers would reimburse any costs incurred from layoffs,[ii] but that assurance is much less straightforward to provide for a shutdown.
Did I hear myself say “backlog”? Many federal government services will face those. The longer the shutdown, the longer the backlog when they’re back in the office. The problem could be serious for some federal courts if the shutdown continues after they run out of reserves; civil cases are on hold and many cases are delayed.[iii] With luck, the special measures taken for the administration of passports and for waiving the duties of new foreign employees coming in to the country to go through assorted checks should keep those agencies’ problems within bounds. If the shutdown continues beyond October the Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children programme, providing help for low income mothers to buy healthy food, is likely to run out of money. All these services had better prepare for queues. The centres for disease control and prevention responsible for vaccination programmes will also find their backlogs building up, as will the inspectorates for seafood and dairy products.
What should you do about a backlog? Well, that’s obvious, surely? Your well-motivated staff work harder and faster than they normally would to get through the work.[iv] But staff returning after their enforced “furlough” are the ones who were not “excepted” from the shutdown. In 1995, the rules were changed so that staff sent home without pay were no longer called “non-essential”. Supposedly, “excepting” them would make them feel more valued than being called unnecessary. But being sent home without pay while your colleagues are told they must stay has the same effect on morale, whatever euphemism is used. If those “not excepted” staff are clearing the backlogs, they might need incentives. And good luck with offering them assurances about their position in future years’ standoffs over the budget.
Backlogs of cases in immigration, passport, courts, and other services raises an ancient public management dilemma. The point of those services is that checking of cases is supposed to be very thorough. Thoroughness ensures that only those entitled to citizenship get the prized document, no villains get into the country and citizens get full justice. Rushing to clear backlogs quickly undermines the quality of the work, or even its purpose. Sod and Murphy’s other law of public administration is that a backlog not dealt quickly with only grows over time. If you doubt that, ask the British passport agency about that problem, or indeed the last refugees from the now defunct Child Support Agency.
The bigger real public management problems from the shutdown could be long term ones. Attracting and retaining staff will only become more difficult if potential employees conclude that the political parties are ready for a shutdown any year they can’t agree on yet another late budget. Solving that problem with higher pay isn’t just expensive. It also signals to people whom we hope are motivated by intrinsic facts about public service, that government can only motivate with cash. That affects work motivation itself. The same process could work even sooner with contractors whether they provide kit or specialist skills. They will demand premium rates to cover themselves for the risk of future shutdowns.[v] The will insist on contract clauses which transfer the risk back to government, just when conventional public management wisdom is that governments should transfer risk to contractors.
But, you might think, if like the thoughtful drinker or self-harmer, US government can plan for the damage it will do when it shuts down, it will plan for all these restart processes? Well, not obviously, no. To its credit, a congress that could not agree a budget or a debt ceiling managed unanimously to pass an emergency law providing that when the shutdown ends, back pay will be indeed be paid. But nothing more. Departmental planning for a shutdown started in 2011.[vi] Probably, managers who could, will have found ways to hoard some funds ready for the shutdown,[vii] but Treasury rules will have prevented many from doing so. 2011 guidance described what plans for a shutdown should include. But none of its bullet points required departments to write restart or recovery plans. Consult those departmental plans.[viii] You will find that most devote pages to lists of “excepted” workers; most set out procedures for shutdown day. During the shutdown, typical departmental or agency plans say that managers have discretion to recall staff to deal with emergencies. And that’s already happened for some workers. Most Department of Defense staff are back at their desks. The inspectors who allow Boeing to deliver new planes to airlines have been recalled. But few plans say anything substantial about what to do in the days, weeks and months after the return to work.
The longer the shutdown, the longer the headaches and the scars will last in management of services, contracts and inspections. US public managers will probably be working through their hangover from this shutdown for months after they return. This will certainly become a case study in public management courses. And, since you asked, the problems in restarting government will show up in the economic numbers for the US, as well as the harm from the shutdown itself.
So if you really can’t stop damaging yourself, make a plan for what you’ll do to recover from your next episode.
Author: Perri 6
Professor in Public Management
School of Business and Management
Director, Master’s programme in Public Administration (MPA)
Thank you to Nick Manning, Tony Bertelli and Brendon Swedlow for their help with this post.
[iv] Meyers RT, 1997 Late appropriations and government shutdowns: frequency, causes, consequences and remedies, Public budgeting and finance, 17, 3, 25-38.
[v] Meyers, op. cit.
[vii] Meyers, op. cit.