The real cost of a government shutdown

The real cost of a government shutdown

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This time it was supposed to be different. In January, the leadership of the new Congress was brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of early adoption of the 12 appropriations bills that comprise the federal budget for fiscal year 2016 starting October 1.

Unfortunately, that optimism has given way to the realities of real and contrived political clashes over the Iran nuclear deal, Planned Parenthood funding, the Federal Highway Reauthorization Act, an increase in the federal debt ceiling and the never ending presidential campaign news cycle.

We have seen this movie before and it never ends well. The financial ratings agency Standard & Poor’s reported that the 2013 government shutdown took at least $24 billion out of the United States economy.

As someone who was responsible for the contingency planning at the Department of Homeland Security in advance of the 2013 shutdown, I can tell you that taxpayers are already paying the price for even the threat of closing the doors again at the end of the month.

When Congress sends the message that the federal government has a chance of closing, the White House and executive branch agencies are forced to take that threat seriously. It kicks off an extensive set of actions that are costly in terms of people, process and performance.

People

The first costs that start to materialize with the threat if a shutdown are to all the people that work for the federal government and their families. Try explaining to your kids why Daddy can’t pay the mortgage because he isn’t sure he will be getting a paycheck in the first week of October. It doesn’t go over very well. Additionally, in 2013 federal managers had to go through the process of determining which employees were essential and those who were not. You can be certain that exercise has been updated.

This does nothing to help with already low morale among federal workers. Those who are deemed essential, have the privilege of working for free, while the non-essential employee gets to stay home and wonder if Congress will authorize pay for the days the government was closed. Expand this circle to include all the private companies and their employees who are supporting federal agency programs and things really get ugly.

Process

At any given point in the calendar year, federal agency CFO shops are busy managing three fiscal years at once. For example, today each agency has to worry about closing the books for FY15 by September 30, plan for the likely prospect of a Continuing Resolution to fund FY16 in the short term and the submission of the FY17 budget to the White House so the process can start all over again. This is a brutal cycle. Add to the mix the threat of a shutdown and the wheels on the bus really begin to rattle. Months of contingency planning diverts scarce resources, attention and energy away from the effective management of government.

Performance and policy

In this atmosphere, is it any wonder that performance and efficiency take a hit? You can’t expect federal workers to be fully optimizing their performance outcomes if they are spending considerable time worrying about what Congress is doing next with government funding. Right now, an intensive amount of resources are being dedicated to the implications of a possible shutdown. That means other key tasks are not getting full attention. Over time, this impacts the quality of service delivery to the public.

Another casualty of a government shutdown relates to new starts and good ideas. From year to year, agencies presumably learn that things can be improved. A shutdown or Continuing Resolution guarantees that new ideas and better ways of doing business are frozen in time until Congress gets around to passing a full year spending bill, thus ensuring continued inefficiencies. Additionally, new programs to protect the public, ranging from cyber to aviation security, sit in limbo while Congress struggles to get the job done.

Consequences

The consequences of a threatened or actual shutdown are very real. In fact, the public is already paying for Congress’ inability to pass the necessary funding bills through impacts on people, process and performance.

Some of my friends ask me if I think the government will shut down at the end of the month. I tell them I can’t imagine that Congress would want to go through the pain and expense of shuttering the government given what we know in terms of cost and disruption. Unfortunately, I was wrong in 2013. I hope that is not the case in 2015.

Chris Cummiskey is the CEO of Cummiskey Strategic Solutions, LLC, a former acting under secretary for management at DHS and a senior fellow with the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

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