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Short-Lived Shutdown Sparks Confusion Across Federal Agencies

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Kevin Bacher/NPS file photo

The short-lived shutdown caused mass confusion across federal agencies Friday morning, as employees awaited the official green light from the White House to resume their work.

Government funding lapsed for about five hours Thursday evening and into Friday morning, but agencies did not receive word to reopen for several more hours as they awaited President Trump’s signature on the bill and for the subsequent all-clear memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget. Just before Congress allowed the deadline to pass, an OMB official said the administration was preparing for a "short-technical lapse." As of 8 a.m. Friday when many federal workers on the East Coast were reporting to their offices, the Office of Personnel Management still had an alert on its website that “due to a lapse in appropriations, federal government operations vary by agency.”

One Education Department employee said as of 8:15 Friday morning, her office was still initiating shutdown procedures. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney issued guidance late Thursday advising agencies to “undertake orderly shutdown activities” despite the administration’s belief that the lapse would “be of short duration.”

It had “been a highly confusing morning,” the Education staffer said.

Several agencies took to social media Friday morning—after Congress had already approved a stopgap funding bill keeping government open through March 23—to notify non-excepted employees to report to work to “initiate furlough status.”

One Defense staffer said employees "were told to come in to review and sign furlough paperwork before leaving for the duration" of the the shutdown. He noted there was "initial confusion" in the period between the measure clearing both chambers of Congress and the president signing it. 

"To compound the issue, many organizations had to wait on official guidance from their higher leadership, who were also waiting on official direction from their higher-ups, and so on," said the employee, who was not authorized to speak about the procedures. "So the process had to follow official channels, and sometimes it takes a few minutes for those channels to work." The employee added that things eventually settled down, but noted, "Clearly a lot of people need to hear the Schoolhouse Rock song about 'I'm Just a Bill' again." 

Other employees took to social media to vent about their confusion, saying they had received conflicting instructions to begin shutting down but to not actually leave because their agency would likely reopen shortly.

Others complained that scheduled trainings had already been canceled.

Trump eventually signed the spending deal, which included a two-year agreement to raise budget caps, and Mulvaney issued the official reopening government memo around 9 a.m. One Homeland Security Department employee told Government Executive that the confusion had not dissipated.

“We still have conflicting confusing guidance,” the employee said. “DHS has exempt folks who had to work, non-exempt who were furloughed and had to come sign furlough letters. Now we have unscheduled leave/unscheduled telework. Office is empty.”

OPM sent a tweet at 9:43 a.m. notifying employees that the government was reopened. The agency said federal offices were “strongly encouraged to use all available workplace flexibilities to ensure a smooth transition back to work for employees (e.g. telework, work schedule flexibilities, and excused absence for hardship situations).”

Charles S. Clark contributed to this report

Eric Katz writes about federal agency operations and management. His deep coverage of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Postal Service has earned him frequent guest spots on national radio and television news programs. Eric joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 and previously worked for The Financial Times. He is a graduate of The George Washington University.

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