A federal government shutdown typically is considered an extraordinary event. The remarkable thing about 2011 was that the government didn't shut down.
At least it hadn't as of mid-November. The tally in fiscal 2011 was grim: eight continuing resolutions, at least three near-shutdowns (depending on how one counts), one partial shutdown at the Federal Aviation Administration that furloughed 4,000 employees, and countless unhappy campers in and out of government. Not a great track record for a presidential administration and Congress heading into an election year.
It doesn't bode well for the federal workforce either. The uncertainty over jobs, government operations, pay and benefits made 2011 an especially tumultuous year, and there's no indication 2012 will be any better. A federal pay freeze still will be in effect, and the odds are very high that Congress will enact a proposal reducing government workers' benefits-especially in the area of retirement.
So, how are federal executives, managers and employees coping? Surprisingly well, if reports are accurate. Civil servants are committed to their work and mostly satisfied with their jobs despite the difficult political and fiscal environments, according to the 2011 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Nearly 92 percent of respondents believe the work they do is important, and 85 percent reported enjoying their jobs. OPM distributed the survey last spring, at a time when the government was hamstrung by a potential shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis, both of which were averted.
"I'm surprised the mood is all that buoyant considering what we're up against," says Jerry Taulbee, a branch chief for the Army Contract Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Taulbee has been in the federal workforce for nearly 30 years, so he's been through a few actual government shutdowns. While he's concerned about budget cuts and the havoc that political brinkmanship wreaks, he also maintains a sense of humor. "I have an hour's commute," he says. "On my way home, I listen to a lot of satellite radio. I'm really into the Michael Jackson [death] investigation."
Not everyone, however, is as unflappable as Taulbee. In fact, many federal employees are angry, jaded, disgusted and demoralized by the year's events, judging from comments on GovExec.com about stories on the perpetual budget impasse, deficit reduction efforts, and proposals targeting federal pay and benefits. Predictably, most of the anger is directed at Capitol Hill. A sampling of reader reaction:
"This is the worst Congress ever."
"Screwed again. Dems don't give a crap about government employees any more than the Repubs do."
"The country might be better off if they took a permanent recess without pay and benefits. That would at least save the taxpayers money, since nothing gets done anyway."
"Anybody know where they're issuing the torches and pitchforks?"
Tell us how you really feel, folks. Anxiety and its effects aren't easy to quantify, but it's fair to say 2011 rattled government employees. An informal survey of Government Executive readers conducted in October reflected a high level of anxiety percolating among the federal workforce. Of more than 1,000 responses, nearly 75 percent reported concern over being furloughed, and 97 percent said they were worried about future reductions in their pay and benefits.
There's no reason for federal workers to relax after Dec. 31. "I've been telling our members that you hope when you go through a rough year like this, that next year will be better, but I don't think that's true," says Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "I wouldn't mind being wrong."
In the December issue of Government Executive, senior correspondent Kellie Lunney looks at how federal employees dealt with the ups and downs of 2011. Click here to read the full story.