Perspectives from the past – Former OPM directors weigh in on the shutdown

It has been 17 years since the federal government last faced a partial shutdown. 9/11 changed the government, leaving federal employees, citizens and even government decision-makers confused about what a shutdown would mean.

Every shutdown is different. The politics that cause them are different. Because of technology and structural overhauls, the way the government functions has changed since 1996. Much of what will happen is unknown.

But there are lessons to be learned from past shutdowns.  The Government Workforce conference, sponsored by ASTD Government and The Public Manager brought together three past  OPM directors to talk past shutdowns, civil service reforms and their ideas about how to improve government.

On the panel were:

  • Janice Lachance, former Director of OPM
  • Linda Springer, former Director of OPM
  • Connie B. Newman, former Director of OPM
  • Ron Sanders, former CHCO of Director of National Intelligence (DNI)

State of the Civil Service:

“Do you remember the punching bag toy you played with as a kid.  You would punch and then it would come back up and pop you right back. You almost feel like that is how the workforce is now. The civil service has been taking blows from all different sides. The public and parts of the media have sort of latched onto it. The workforce just keeps coming back up to help the people that are punching them. In some ways, it shows what is right about public servants in an environment where there is a lot of badness going on," said Springer.

“I am not sure much has changed since I was the OPM director in the 90s. At that point I think people that were part of the civil service felt a measure of stress, but I think it is much worse now. The service is a bit stymied because it is hard to get elected officials to focus on personnel issues. Frankly what i’ve learned is it is not just these issues, but it’s anything that is complicated that doesn’t lend itself to soundbites, it off limits” said Lachance.

“What’s wrong with the civil service now is what's wrong with government in general. There is no economic stability anymore. There is no stability in government. Bipartisan is a word that doesn’t mean anything. There is a lack of trust on all parts. It is also a sea of information. You can’t make mistakes anymore, because once it’s made it is spread all over, so that makes it hard for people that govern who are trying to do the right thing, because there is a cost to them if they ever make a mistake," said Newman.

Lachance's tales from the last shutdown:

  • The shutdowns when I was there happened twice a few months apart.  Surprisingly there was a lot of bureaucracy surrounding it, which was actually a good thing. We were ready. OPM as an agency knew what had to be done. We knew the kind of advice that had to go out to each agency. I know that is happening now. All the agencies have received a lot of guidance on what to do. Amazingly, what I found was people asking for exceptions. They wanted to come to work. They asked, 'Are you sure I am not one of the people who can come.'
  • There are lots and lots of different rules. For example, the DC government has to close, because the DC government is considered a federal agency. Garbage collection will stop. The only things that will continue to run in the DC government is fire and EMTs. A lot of essential services will have to stop.
  • People just want to continue their work. Civil servants are incredibly dedicated, they were just waiting for that moment for when they could come back. There wasn’t an issue about reaching people and telling them to return, everyone knew when to come back.
  • But the work that goes into who gets to stay who has to go, who has to work is enormous. The amount of time spent on that is unfortunate because it just sucks up resources. In a very bad way, those are resources that could be used for much more constructive manners.
  • It was a stressful time because we wanted to make sure that each agency had the information it needed to get to the agencies and their workforces in time. But that was also a time when we were pretty sure that pay would be reinstated afterwards. No one would lose any income. That is not the case this time and that is something that could really demoralize people and rightly so. You make plans based on getting paid an honest day's wage for a honest day's work and when that agreement is broken it makes for a difficult situation. So I do think there are going to be some serious morale issues for people to deal with.

How do you keep people motivated despite a shutdown?

"It’s a tough because it has just been piling on.  I think any human capital leader at any agency not just OPM needs to be an advocate and a cheerleader for what the public workforce is doing day in and day out. Get out there wherever you can, work with your public affairs officers to recognize internally and externally the good work that the government is doing. The government is also an employer and it has responsibilities as an employer in addition to its governance. So I think we have to play that role too for people especially in these times," said Springer.

"So much depends on signals sent from the leadership. Everybody is a leader to somebody. There needs to be more recognition of the importance of the workforce. People are going to be unhappy about not getting paid or getting paid late, that is hard to deal with but if you add in the context of not having people respect what they do, then it’s even harder to take. It is the responsibility from everyone from the President on down to praise the good work and recognize honestly that without the people in government government doesn’t work," said Newman.

The government workforce matters

"There has been this de-personalization of the workforce. It’s called the workforce. Like it is a building or a car. But it is people. And I think a lot of times people lose a sense of that," said Springer.

You can see all GovLoop's shutdown coverage here.

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