Reflections on the Government Shutdown

By Lisa Cooley, Director of Federal Solutions at Gordian

Thankfully, the Federal Government shutdown came to at least a temporary end this afternoon after more than 30 days. The longest Federal government shutdown in history has left a lot of people in limbo. DoD contractors, TSA employees, HUD benefit recipients—hundreds of thousands of Americans were living and working day-to-day, at the mercy of stalled negotiations between political parties. Some of those affected are Gordian clients, people the Federal Solutions team has worked with for years. Since the shutdown began, my team has been endeavoring to understand the impacts on the agencies we serve. Which agencies are affected and in what ways? Which contract renewals are delayed? But through all of the numbers and risk quantification, my team has not lost sight of the human element—our valued clients.

We work with everyone from transactional acquisition staff managing P-card purchases of a few thousand dollars to Senior Executive Service members leading strategic initiatives. The shutdown impacts all of them, though it has done so in different ways. We are cognizant of the impact to our clients’ and their mission, and the long-term implications for the effectiveness of our federal government.

The uncertainty of the shutdown was tough, but things will be even more difficult when these folks return to work in the coming days—they will be tasked with effectively executing nine months’ worth of work in eight. The Federal fiscal year end is already so back-end loaded because of congressional budgeting, and the shutdown will exacerbate this challenge. Contracting officers and engineering staff will need to rely on tools like Job Order Contracting (JOC) and GSA Schedule even more than usual. Because of this, I have my Federal solutions team thinking about ways we can help clients get programs in place, expedite project formulation and work more efficiently in the coming months. It’s going to be a stressful construction execution year for those agencies that have experienced furloughs, but there are solutions and we’re committed to helping our clients find them.

We’re also considering the less obvious long-term impact. For instance, Gordian is undertaking a major software development initiative aimed at the federal sector, and we are seeking inputs from our clients. The furloughed agencies aren’t able to participate in that now, and may not have time once they are called back to work. The efforts of a solutions team like ours are necessarily redirected in these times to agencies that are open for business, but that may come at a cost. The long-term impact is tough to quantify, but by design the government’s mission is accomplished through a careful collaboration between agencies and the private industry. Even a temporary suspension of that symbiotic relationship will have an impact on which agencies’ problems are being solved. Further, do the repeated and increasingly long shutdown drills drive away or deter passionate, talented individuals from pursuing a life of public service? Does the uncertainty of working for the Federal government create a “brain drain” that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of ineffectiveness?

There is also a huge impact on contractor stakeholders—most significantly those in quasi-governmental consulting positions, but also construction contractors that we work with every day in IDIQ programs. Federal contracting appeal is cyclical. In an economic downturn (such as the last recession), contractors flock to the Federal space for stable workflow and guaranteed prompt payment. But in a high-demand construction market like we have today, some contractors are liable to decide the disruption of projects and business operations outweighs those advantages. Contractors working for local governments on programs funded by grants from Federal agencies HUD and USDA can be affected by government shutdowns. Small and disadvantaged businesses particularly feel the pinch, with the added stress of delays in SBA loans which fuel small business growth and innovation for many construction companies.

Most importantly, there is the human element. Some federal workers can weather a missed paycheck or two with the knowledge that they will receive back pay, but others may be in a tougher spot. I am especially thankful for the workers that have continued to show up and get business done: TSA workers who have kept flights running smoothly; the contracting staff at GSA who are working to ensure there is continuous access to cost estimating tools; those serving disaster recovery at FEMA; and US Forest Service rangers who are keeping assets safe.

We have been reaching out to our clients, where possible, to let them know we are thinking of them, but our ability to help directly is limited. And that’s frustrating. I love working with Federal government employees because of their passion for public service. Almost all of them could be making more money in the private sector, but they choose to work in government because they believe in the mission of their agencies: protecting our country, being stewards of our national recreation lands and leading our nation’s scientific exploration. We as a country can have reasonable dialogue and debates about the scale and role of government in our society, but it is concerning when our national servants get caught in the rhetorical or financial cross-hairs.

I’m heartened by the number of Federal clients who have reached out to us via LinkedIn and personal channels during this time. They are part of the Gordian family, and we stand in support of them always.