Shelter from the Storm

By Kellie Lunney

December 1, 2011

Federal managers and employees fought their way through rough conditions this year. And next year's forecast isn't great, either.

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 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."

Uncertain Times

In July, President Obama spoke to the nation about the debt ceiling, which at the time was the crisis du jour. The government was on track to default on its obligations if Congress and the administration didn't broker a deal to raise the debt limit by Aug. 2. "The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government," Obama said.

The government is not really dysfunctional. It actually works pretty well, considering the tension built into the system. Every day, federal employees are responsible for providing an array of services the public expects and depends on; by and large, they deliver. Even Congress has managed to pass important legislation this year, including bills funding government operations, albeit at the last minute and with a lot of Sturm und Drang. For example, on the eve of the debt ceiling deadline, Congress approved a measure allowing Obama to raise the debt limit by $400 billion initially, and between $2.1 trillion and $2.4 trillion through 2012 in two more increments. But partisan politics and strident ideology have so bogged down the mechanics of government, particularly the annual appropriations process, that it has created a very challenging working environment for the country's 2 million federal employees.

Government by consensus has become government by crisis.

"I don't have a lot of people coming into the office saying it's a distraction, but how can it not be?" asks Taulbee. When you start with the constant threat of a federal shutdown, and add a steady diet of legislative proposals for more pay freezes, caps on hiring and cuts to federal retirement benefits, it comes as no surprise that government workers are rethinking their job options.

"While our organization has no issue with maintaining high standards and a positive approach to our mission, there is increasing ambivalence regarding whether to seek a different career or to continue with government service," says a retired military officer who now works as a training program manager at the Air Force's Hurlburt Field in Florida. The manager, who has worked on the civilian side of government for the past five years, says that when employment opportunities outside government crop up for federal employees, "some of them might look around a little."

NTEU's Kelley firmly believes the current environment and proposals targeting federal pay and benefits will hurt the government's long-term efforts to recruit and retain a highly skilled workforce. One proposal under consideration on Capitol Hill involves eliminating the defined retirement benefit for future federal hires. Most private sector companies no longer fund pensions for their employees, so advocates of ending the practice in government argue that it not only will save money, but also level the playing field. Not surprisingly, Kelley thinks it's a bad idea. "Why would anyone want to work here if that were part of the program?" she asks.

The retirement proposal is just one of many that are floating around in the name of deficit reduction. "Unfortunately, we've heard from lawmakers that federal employee pay and benefits are always on the table," Patricia Niehaus, national president of the Federal Managers Association, said during the debt ceiling crisis this summer. "Federal employees are a pretty easy target," Kelley says.

While federal employees are well-acquainted with budget uncertainty, the current debate over pay and benefits has them worried: 94 percent of respondents to Government Executive's poll believe efforts to reduce federal pay and benefits will affect the government's ability to maintain a strong workforce. The Office of Personnel Management acknowledges the challenging environment and encourages agencies and managers to use every option at their disposal to keep employees motivated. That includes offering flexible work schedules and telework opportunities to attract and retain employees in the absence of pay raises.

"Managers often have a lot of flexibilities at their fingertips that cost very little, but can be extremely effective in recruiting, motivating and retaining a talented workforce," says Chuck Grimes, OPM's chief operating officer.

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Every relationship has its woes, and the complicated kinship between the legislative and executive branches is no exception. The behaviors on display sometimes look more like an episode of Dr. Phil than a portrait of government at its finest. Many federal workers feel abandoned by the country's political leaders. "Obviously, there is a large segment of Congress that doesn't believe we have value," says Ken McDaniels, an employee at the Internal Revenue Service in Manhattan and conference chairman for the Federal Managers Association.

For nearly two years, there's been an ongoing debate about whether federal workers are overcompensated. Comparing wages and benefits of government employees and private sector workers is an imperfect science, dependent on many variables including age, education, different pay scales and bonus opportunities. It's a legitimate debate, but sometimes the rhetoric can get heated.

For instance, during a House speech in July, Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., called for revising the federal civilian and military retirement system, something people on both sides of the aisle support in principle. But in his address, he singled out federal law enforcement officers, who are eligible for early retirement and have a mandatory retirement age of 57. "Almost no federal law enforcement today is physical in nature. Early retirement in most federal law enforcement can no longer be justified," said Duncan, who is sponsoring a bill to end early retirement for all new federal workers, including members of Congress. "Working as a waiter or waitress is more physically demanding than most federal government positions for which we now grant early retirement." Comments like that don't sit well with government employees and can distract from serious policy discussions.

"Until you work in the government, it's hard to know how dedicated employees are to the mission," says John Koskinen, who served as deputy director of management at the Office of Budget and Management during the Clinton administration and now is the nonexecutive chairman of the board at Freddie Mac. Still, according to Koskinen, almost nothing should be off the table when it comes to deficit reduction discussions. "It's hard to argue that we shouldn't look at every- thing, including [federal] compensation," he says. Lawmakers-especially those who represent large groups of federal civilian employees and military service members-are attempting a difficult balance: trying to reassure government employees while simultaneously considering proposals to reduce the deficit that would require more sacrifice from them.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., believes federal workers have been treated unfairly during the past year, and has visited government offices in his state to answer employees' questions about pay, the debt ceiling crisis and the broken appropriations process. He says employees are thirsty for information, and while they understand the fiscal challenges the country faces, they don't want to be treated like scapegoats. But Cardin also believes most of his colleagues in Congress are making a good faith effort to inject more stability and less chaos into the political environment. "I can tell you that I think there are a great number of members who believe predictability is one of the principal objectives we can give our country," he says.

Cardin also emphasizes the importance of showing gratitude to federal employees for their public service. Everyone wants to be appreciated and making the effort to demonstrate that appreciation is worthwhile, and undoubtedly politically wise. But it's not enough for some feds.

"I would say the video doesn't match the audio," says the retired officer working at Hurlburt Field. "The thank you that comes out of their mouths doesn't match the actions I see, the way they are currently assaulting the federal workforce, writ large." He and others simply don't believe lawmakers really know how government works. "I think there is a lack of understanding [on Capitol Hill] of what agencies and departments do," says McDaniels.

Shutdown? What Shutdown?

At several points this year, agencies came close to stopping what they do. In the most extreme case, the government was poised for a shutdown on 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 8. On April 7, OMB sent a memo to agency officials directing them to alert employees of their work status.

"We know that the current uncertainty and threat of a shutdown is a tremendous burden on federal employees and therefore, earlier this week, we encouraged agencies to reach out to all employees regarding the possible lapse in appropriations," OMB Director Jack Lew wrote in the memo. On Friday, April 8, agencies began to release estimates of how many employees could be furloughed. Even at that late date, many employees still were unsure of whether they would be considered essential or nonessential, and were told to report to work on Monday, April 11.

At the time, employees reported being upset, frustrated and confused. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., held a town hall meeting on April 7 and many federal workers complained about the lack of information from the administration and expressed concern over how they would manage indefinitely without a paycheck. But they weren't concerned only about money. Managers, also largely in the dark, were trying to reassure employees and field questions from people outside agencies who did business with the government. "We got absolute zero guidance on how to answer contracting inquiries, and that was disturbing," says Taulbee of the Army Contract Command. He says he and his colleagues "got our heads together on our own" and figured out how to respond to contractors.

In the weeks leading up to the debt ceiling deadline in August, the Social Security Administration sent a memo with instructions to employees on how to handle inquiries from the public about their benefits if Congress failed to raise the ceiling. "If an individual inquires about payment of Social Security or [Supplemental Security Income] checks due to concerns about the federal debt ceiling, provide the following response: 'We're sorry but we don't know,' " the memo stated.

Grimes says many agencies contacted OPM in the spring asking for help in preparing for a shutdown. "We ensured that OPM's website remained up-to-date with furlough guidance, frequently asked questions and other information that HR offices and employees need, and also referred them to other relevant guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget," Grimes said via email. But he also noted that OPM "has no control over the budget decisions that might necessitate a shutdown furlough due to a lapse in appropriations."

Employees also reached out to the media and unions for any information they could provide before the April deadline. Kelley says NTEU officials were "frustrated and angry" over the lack of official guidance, but realized that agencies "didn't have choice. They were gagged by OMB."

After the April 8 shutdown scare, FAA partially closed for two weeks in July, the government nearly defaulted in August and there was shutdown talk again in September when yet another stopgap spending measure was set to expire. By then, many federal employees had become jaded by the entire spectacle, even if they were living under the specter of furloughs. The last-minute drama, however, does make people's jobs more difficult. "We have people spending incredible amounts of time just reworking budget numbers," McDaniels says of the multiple continuing resolutions. "You can't make good decisions this way."

Agencies are required under OMB Circular A-11 to develop plans for a government hiatus, including information such as the time it will take to complete a shutdown and the number of essential employees they plan to retain. OMB, the Justice Department and OPM are supposed to provide agencies with guidance; agencies in turn must inform employees in advance of an impending shutdown and of their status under such circumstances. The last time the government shut down was in 1995 and 1996, for a total of 26 days at an overall cost of $1.4 billion.

Koskinen, who helped oversee those shutdowns and established a basic frame-work that is still in place, wonders how the government came to the brink so many times this year. "I thought once we finished the two government shutdowns . . . that it would never happen again because people would determine there was no gain in it," he says. "I would be surprised that my 15 minutes of fame would be renewed here."

Gearing Up for 2012

Learning lessons isn't the government's strong suit. This year probably will be the warm-up act for even bigger budget battles in 2012. As of this fall, it looked very likely that the deficit reduction recommendations of the joint congressional committee would have at least some impact on federal pay and benefits, sparking fresh debate. It looked unlikely that fiscal 2012 appropriations legislation would be wrapped up, so more continuing resolutions loomed. President Obama's undoubtedly lean fiscal 2013 budget proposal will be unveiled in February 2012. He's already recommended that federal employees contribute more to their pensions as part of his deficit reduction proposal-an issue that will only gain momentum in the coming presidential election year.

During that election campaign, will anti-federal employee rhetoric continue? Probably. Will there be more proposals to reduce federal pay and benefits and to shrink the size of the government workforce? Definitely. Uncertainty over agency budgets still will plague federal managers and employees who are trying to squeeze the most from their limited resources.

OMB's Lew summed it up perhaps most succinctly in September when he spoke to agency managers about the current fiscal environment at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He did not rule out more sacrifice for government employees. "I can't say nothing else will happen regarding the federal workforce," he said.

2011: A Year to Forget

February: House GOP members propose $100 billion in spending cuts to fiscal 2011 budget; President Obama releases $3.7 trillion fiscal 2012 budget proposal that cuts funding for more than half of all major nonsecurity agencies.

March: Congress passes continuing resolution to keep government running until April 8; OPM's John Berry defends administration's pay freeze as cost-saving measure on Capitol Hill; Congressional Budget Office estimates reducing annual pay increases for federal civilian workers and military personnel would save the government billions of dollars during the next decade.

April: Government narrowly averts shutdown literally at the 11th hour; concerns over the debt ceiling ramp up; House passes fiscal 2012 budget resolution calling for an extended federal pay freeze, workforce reductions through attrition and a higher pension contribution level for feds; Obama unveils $4 trillion deficit reduction plan.

May: Government hits debt limit, prompting Treasury to suspend investments in federal employee pensions.

June: Administration officials direct agencies to cap bonuses for senior managers through 2012.

July: FAA partial shutdown furloughs 4,000 employees; lack of deal on debt limit negotiations pushes government closer to August default.

August: Last-minute debt ceiling deal to avoid government default is reached; Obama signs law creating a joint congressional deficit reduction committee responsible for coming up with at least $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade; FAA furlough ends; Treasury refills federal pension coffers; OMB directs agencies to cut 2013 budget proposals; several agencies announce buyout and early-out plans.

September: Obama announces deficit reduction plan, including recommendation to raise feds' pension contribution rate; lawmakers reach deal avoiding another government shutdown; OMB chief won't rule out more deficit reduction proposals affecting feds.

October: Fiscal 2012 begins with government running on a continuing resolution; federal retirees get cost-of-living boost for the first time in two years; congressional super committee receives deficit reduction recommendations, including many that would cut pay and benefits for federal employees and military service members; furloughed FAA workers receive back pay.

November: Super committee must vote on its deficit reduction plan.

December: The super committee must send its report to Congress and the president by Dec. 2; Congress must vote on the committee's bill by Dec. 23 to avoid triggering automatic, spending cuts across-the-board.

The Forest and the Trees: When a State Shuts Down

While the federal government narrowly avoided a shutdown earlier this year, the government of one state, Minnesota, actually did close much of its operations for an extended period starting July 1. That day, severe storms swept through the state's Pine County, heavily damaging thousands of acres of land in St. Croix State Park. As a result of the shutdown, Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources had only a skeleton crew working in the area. "We actually had a plan" for what to do in the event a natural disaster occurred while the government was closed, says Mark Wallace, DNR's assistant administrator. "But what we didn't have a plan for was all the high-value timber that was lying on the ground."

Fortunately, the government reopened 21 days later and the timber was salvaged. But the park didn't reopen until September, at the tail end of the tourist season.

When Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the state's Republican-led legislature could not agree on a budget, the state government furloughed 22,000 employees, including most of DNR's 5,000 workers. During the height of summer, the state could not issue fishing, boating or hunting licenses and parks were shuttered, costing millions in lost revenue.

Wallace says state agencies started planning for the impending shutdown in the spring, weeks before the June 30 legislative deadline. He began working on preparations full time in May and didn't return to his normal duties until the government reopened in late July.

"I think it's fair to say planning for a government shutdown is the single most wasteful thing I've done as a government employee," he says. "The agency is required to be a competent business entity. I think that shutting down required everything we had to do it competently. It was not constructive toward our missions and objectives."

Wallace says that in retrospect, DNR was too conservative about designating critical resources it needed to weather the lengthy shutdown. "No one anticipated 21 days," he says. For instance, fish hatcheries remained open, because fish are a valuable commodity for the state and they'd die without monitoring. But "we didn't have enough people to manage the hatcheries," Wallace says.

The big lesson, he says, is keeping a shutdown management framework flexible so that it can respond to changing conditions. "We could have been more careful about pre-establishing some criteria-based decision-making so folks could have had more consistent outcomes," Wallace says.

By Kellie Lunney

December 1, 2011