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IT operations would take a hit during shutdown

CIO's dilemma: As shutdown looms, what to shut down?

Sep. 30, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments
A woman uses her BlackBerry phone in Jak
As agencies face a possible shutdown, one question IT managers face is whether to confiscate from employees their government-issued smartphones. (Agence France-Presse)
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One unwelcome task that hit IT managers across government last week was this: Plan for a possible government shutdown.

For many chief information officers, it is not only a tall order but a demoralizing one.

“It’s like going in reverse in a car because everyday you plan for things to happen and take place and execution, and then a couple of times in your career you’re asked to plan [for] a shutdown,” said one federal chief information officer at a small independent agency, who asked not to be named. “It’s one of the biggest downers in terms of government.”

Whether a shutdown occurs this week or not (it was unclear late last week), IT managers across government are finding the task of planning for such events increasingly complex as agencies rely more heavily on technology and contractor support to get their jobs done.

Among the numerous questions to resolve: How much of a skeleton crew to leave in place? What level of help desk support should be left in tact? Should government-issued phones be recalled? What happens to contract employees? What becomes of their websites? Are any cloud service contracts in jeopardy of expiring? What becomes of ongoing modernization projects? And what IT systems are critical to state and local government partners?

Back in 2011 — the last time there was a serious threat of a shutdown — many CIOs drafted plans; this time around, the focus is on revising those plans and explaining to staffs what their roles will be.

IT managers may opt to confiscate government-issued BlackBerrys, iPhones and other smartphone devices from furloughed employees forced to stay home without pay, but that would be the least of their worries. Some federal websites may go dark or not get updated, and IT not deemed mission critical would shut down.

Systems that support Freedom of Information Act requests and other nonessential systems and databases would sit idle, said Giovanni Leusch-Carnaroli, director of global public sector at Grant Thornton.

“The server may be on, but there is not going to be anyone really to use it [the system],” Leusch-Carnaroli said. It doesn’t mean agencies will turn the lights off as much as certain systems won’t be patched or maintained. IT operations related to developing policy, responding to data calls and investment reviews will likely cease.

“It’s a very inefficient way of operating,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s becoming the norm.”

Activities like data center consolidation would likely be halted, said Paul Christman, vice president of Dell Software Public Sector. For federal IT workers, “they are looking at this and saying ‘I’m just trying to get my job done.’ ”

One issue for some CIOs will be deciding what to do about government-issued phones and even employees’ personal phones that are used for work. Last May, the government reported having some 1.5 million mobile devices, some of which belong to employees who would be furloughed during a shutdown. That number is certain to be higher now as more agencies have equipped their staffs with smartphones and tablet devices and allowed employees to use their own devices for work.

The Office of Management and Budget told agencies on Sept. 17 not to rely on mobile devices or home access to work email for orderly shutdown procedures or to provide notices of when to return to work.

But policing whether employees work on their furlough days doesn’t appear to be top of mind for managers. “It really is a personal responsibility,” the CIO said. Only a handful of the agency’s 50 or so IT staff would remain on board and that may not include any of its 25 contractors.

It appears many contract employees working on federal IT staffs will be affected. The small agency CIO said “if all the government workers are out, then we really don’t have work to perform [and] we will scale back. For time and material type contracts, those contractors will not work during a shutdown.”

There’s also the challenge of deciding what IT systems will be shut down. Some of those systems operate in contractor-owned data centers and are provided as a service over the Internet, or the cloud.

“Our systems will run regardless, because we do a firm, fixed-price [contract] with the government, and they’ve funded it,” said John Keese, president of cloud provider Autonomic Resources. “We are not operating at risk.”

The company provides the cloud infrastructure that its customer agencies need to support their applications. “We would never shut the environments down unless we were directed,” Keese said.

Indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts, which provide an indefinite quantity of goods and services during a fixed period of time, will give agencies enormous flexibility during these uncertain budget times, said Dan Gordon, a law professor at George Washington University who served as President Obama's administrator for federal procurement policy. “That’s the main reason sequestration hasn’t led to widespread termination of contracts. Agencies can ratchet up their spending or ratchet down their spending.”

Federal IT systems deemed essential or with multiyear funding won’t be impacted for the most part. But federal staff tasked with managing service level agreements of those contracts or providing oversight could be deemed nonessential, said Leusch-Carnaroli.

At the Department of Homeland Security, “certain planned procurements may be canceled and certain existing contracts may be stopped, reduced in scope, terminated or partially terminated,” DHS chief procurement officer, Nick Nayak, said in a Sept. 26 notice to industry. It isn’t clear to what extent IT contracts will be affected.

Some government websites are a likely candidate to shut down, unless “maintenance of the website is necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities,” according to OMB.

Maintenance of the IRS website, for example, may continue during a shutdown to support tax filings and tax collection.

“The biggest most apparent impact will be on IT labor,” said Dell’s Christman. “It’s the people that have to keep things going and [take] daily care of machines. That’s where you’re going to see the most dramatic impact.”

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