Boldly Going

The 16-day shutdown of government in October affected federal agencies in dramatically different ways. At the Housing and Urban Development Department, 96 percent of employees were sent home, according to an analysis of shutdown plans by Government Executive’s Eric Katz. At the Education Department, the figure was 95 percent. Among smaller agencies, the National Science Foundation furloughed 99 percent of its workers. And at the Office of Government Ethics, just one lone employee kept the lights on.

At the Veterans Affairs Department, on the other hand, only 4 percent of employees were off the job. At the Justice Department, only 16 percent were.

In popular parlance, there’s a word for all of those forced to take some unwanted time off: “nonessential.” The essential folks—such as half the civilians at the Defense Department—were still at their desks, working.

The problem with this essential/nonessential label is that it’s outdated, cruel and wrong. The proper terminology is “excepted” versus “nonexcepted” from shutdown furloughs. (And don’t get me started on those who don’t fall into either of these categories but are nonetheless classified as “exempt” from furloughs.)

It’s commonly believed that federal officials changed the labels from the old essential/nonessential distinction so as not to upset the delicate feelings of those in the latter category. But it’s fairly obvious there’s another reason: It’s simply wrong to characterize those sent home during a shutdown as not essential to the operations of government. Their work is nonessential in only a very narrowly defined way—that is, it doesn’t directly involve “the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

On top of that, during the shutdown, agencies creatively came up with ways to keep operations running that weren’t exactly essential to the protection of life and property—such  as passport processing—but  which would have created major annoyances for the public and a drag on the economy. That left everybody remaining in the nonexcepted category as looking like their work doesn’t matter.

There were plenty of HUD and Education employees sitting at home whose work is essential to the mission of their agencies—and thousands more at places like NASA and the Securities and Exchange Commission, where huge numbers of employees sat idle. It’s just that our elected officials have decided that in a shutdown, they don’t care whether that kind of work continues. 

Now another shutdown looms, unless Congress and the White House can agree on a budget framework by Jan. 15. Before the next round of brinksmanship unfolds, we wanted to take a moment to recognize those whose work is not only essential, but downright amazing. So in this issue, we highlight the finalists for the Bold Awards, as determined by Nextgov, our digital publication focusing on technology and the future of government. 

The Bold Award finalists, who will be honored at the Nextgov Prime event in Washington on Nov. 20 (, represent the best of what government has to offer when it comes to technological innovation. Their accomplishments include developing a digital mail delivery system at the Pentagon, creating an easily accessible database of foreign aid spending and launching a model “bring your own device” initiative at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. All of the finalists have succeeded in transcending bureaucratic challenges to achieve genuine breakthroughs, but some of them no doubt made it on the “nonessential” list during the shutdown. Keep that in mind the next time the country’s political leaders use the federal workforce as leverage in their budget and policy battles. 

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