DHS Shutdown Twofer: Burning Money and Morale at the Same Time

It is hard to open a newspaper or go to a news site on the Internet without seeing a story about the impending shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. Like most everything in our modern political discourse, we see extreme views, uncivil behavior and more misinformation than information. Here is some real information about what is going on: Money is being wasted and employee morale in DHS is being harmed (yes, it can still get worse).

Shutdown is Not Free. I have been stunned to hear people saying there is no harm in talking about a shutdown, particularly if the House and Senate make a deal to avert it. Shutting down a department with 230,000 military and civilian employees takes planning. People I am talking with at DHS have been involved intensely for the past couple of weeks in the planning process to execute a shutdown order. The department and its components have to decide who works and who stays home. They have to decide which contracts can continue to be executed and which have to stop work. They have to decide which grant programs are stopped and how (while localities that rely on that money are out of luck). They have to decide how to notify all of the employees. They have to talk with the unions who represent employees. They have to answer inquiries from OMB, OPM, the House, the Senate, the Press, and the public, and most of all, the workforce. While they are doing all of that, they have to continue normal operations of the department. All of the shutdown activity consumes resources and time that should be focused on the mission. Those resources are wasted. The time is gone and can never be recovered. I have actually been told by some folks that DHS should not waste time preparing for a shutdown, because it is not likely to happen. The same folks said that in 2013 and we saw what happened. DHS is preparing because it has no choice. Its mission is vital to our security and failing to prepare for an orderly shutdown would be irresponsible.

How Much Can We Abuse the DHS Workforce? Anyone who pays attention to Federal workforce issues knows DHS has morale problems. They began when the Department was hastily thrown together in 2003 without proper planning and continue to this day. DHS leaders are taking steps to make things better for the workforce, but it is difficult (maybe impossible) to bring up morale in DHS when 30,000 people are told to go home without pay and wait until the political fighting is over and the remainder are told to come to work without pay until the shutdown is over. Nobody will be paying their bills for them. They are on their own. DHS employees I have spoken with are angry. They resent being put in this position, are offended that their mission is put at risk over politics, and question whether remaining in DHS is worth it. The effect on morale is made worse by the fact that it is the mission that is being put at risk. DHS has morale issues, but it certainly does not have “commitment to the mission” problems. The DHS workforce recognizes the importance of their work. They are committed to the mission and to serving the American people. It is a good workforce, made up of dedicated men and women who will do what is needed to accomplish the mission. If they are told to show up without pay, they will do it. If they are told their training may be delayed or canceled because of the shutdown, they will live with it. If they cannot get the contract support they need, they will find a temporary way to make do. They will do that because they care. Because they are committed. Because they are the type of workforce any employer would be proud to have. But make no mistake, they can be broken. Their dedication can be crushed, and at some point the mission of DHS will be at great risk of failure. I do not think we are there yet, but we cannot risk getting much closer.


What Does it Mean When the Government “Closes” Due to Weather?

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A lot of people in the Washington, DC metro area saw the news they were looking for on Tuesday. The government is “Closed.” For most Federal workers, it means a snow day. Time home with the family, not having to worry about child care (because the schools are closed too), and an opportunity to either play in the snow or shovel it. But – what does “Closed” really mean?

When the government “closes” it does not really close. Much like it does not shut down during a shutdown, there are vital services that simply must go on, and they do. If you go to Dulles International Airport today, you will find Transportation Security Officers at the checkpoints and in baggage screening. You will find Customs and Border Protection Officers on the job working with both passengers and cargo. If you go to any of the military installations in the area, safety, security and fire personnel will be on the job. Many other people in jobs that cannot stop just because some snow fell will be at work. They know the job they signed up for, and most of them do not complain about having to go to work.

The rules have been the same for many years – the “emergency” employees show up regardless of the weather. But something has changed in recent years. Now we have thousands of employees who telework. Depending on the terms of their telework agreement and their union contract (for bargaining unit employees), many people who are on approved telework agreements do not get the day off. They are expected to put in a full days work at home and get no benefit from the government being “closed.” Is that fair? Given that the government supports telework for a lot of good reasons (including reducing traffic, saving on office rent and giving employees their commute time back), should it ask the people who have signed up to do what the government wants (teleworkers) to work when the people who do not or cannot telework get the day off? Yes, it should.

One other key reason for telework – one that I believe is among the strongest arguments for a mobile workforce – is continuity of operations. Snow storms, hurricanes, tornados and other acts of God can cause problems for far longer than a day or two. Acts of man, such as terrorist attacks, can cause long-term emergencies where the ability of the government to continue to operate is crucial to our nation’s security and economic interests. We have already had examples of agencies that continued to provide services in disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. The ability of people to work from home or another remote location is in our interest and it is a very good thing. So I view days like today as dry runs for the day when we may need a dispersed workforce continuing to do the people’s work even when a natural or man-made disaster strikes.

Is it fair? When we consider all of the hours of commuting that telework saves, yes. People who save 2 or more hours every day they telework only have to telework 4 days to save enough time to make up for a day like today. In the big scheme of things, that is not a bad deal.