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4/8/2011
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Federal IT Operations Plan For Government Shutdown

The Office of Management and Budget issued operational guidelines covering the IT operations and websites of federal departments and agencies if a government shutdown takes place.

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Many federal IT operations will cease during a government shutdown unless they are considered essential services and granted an exception to a law forbidding federal expenditures without appropriated funding, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The OMB was hesitant to publicly comment earlier this week about what might happen specifically across federal IT operations in the event of a shutdown, which is slated to take place at midnight Friday due to the lingering Congressional fiscal-year 2011 budget stalemate.

However, in a memo released Friday, the agency finally outlined agency planning in the event of a shutdown, including what happens to IT-related activities. It also gave agencies instructions about what they must do to notify Web visitors in case their websites or online services are unavailable.

Citing the Antideficieny Act, the OMB said that unless an IT operation meets the exception criteria or its continuation "is necessarily implied from a congressional authorization or appropriation," IT operations will be suspended. Employees associated with those activities will be furloughed as part of the 800,000 federal employees who are expected to be affected by a possible government shutdown.

The act mandates that, with limited exceptions, agencies can't incur obligations for activities without appropriations or make expenditures in excess of funding. Without approved appropriations for the fiscal-year 2011 budget, the law prevents non-essential employees from working and IT contractors from doing business with the government.

Earlier this week, a senior agency official defined essential functions as those "necessary for safety of life and protection of property," such as the military and law enforcement.

If an IT system must remain operational to "avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities," it will continue working as usual, according to the OMB.

If that one system is too integrated with others to shut them down as well, a federal agency must provide guidance on how to maintain these operations in a way that avoids damaging federal property, "including avoiding any permanent disruption to agency IT systems and ensuring preservation of agency electronic records," according to the OMB.

Agencies also must determine if it's safe to shut down a website to avoid damage to back-end systems that must remain operational as part of the exception, the agency said.

The same rules apply for maintenance on federal websites in case they go down during a shutdown, work that will only be allowed if it meets the accepted criteria.

"The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse," according to the OMB.

However, some agency websites are an exception. Maintenance on the IRS site, for example, can be done during a shutdown, because of its essential functions. But the website for Department of Treasury -- which oversees the IRS -- would not, according to the OMB. The IRS will continue to process e-filed returns for the 2010 income-tax season even in the event of a shutdown.

If an agency's website is shut down, users should be shown a standard notice that the website is unavailable during the period of government shutdown. If any part of an agency's website is available, agencies should include a standard notice on their landing pages that tells the public that information on the website may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the website might not be processed until appropriations are enacted, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

Some federal agencies issued their own guidance for what will happen to IT and technology-related operations if the government closes its doors at midnight.

NASA said its online television service and website will be suspended in the event of a shutdown. However, it will continue IT and technology operations to support functions it's identified as exceptions to the Antideficiency Act.

Those functions include support of the Space Shuttle and space-launch hardware processing; tracking, operation and support of the International Space Station and operating satellites necessary to protect and property; and the completion or phasing down of research activities in which serious damage to property would result from temporary suspension of activity.

Contractors that are involved in activities that fall under the exceptions also will continue to do their tasks normally, the agency said.

The Department of Transportation said it would suspend the development, operational testing and evaluation of technologies for its NextGen air traffic control system, which is currently underway. However, it will continue to operate communications services with regard to transferring security information, the department said.

The Department of Defense (DOD) engages in numerous excepted activities, and any functions that support them -- including both department and contracted IT operations -- will continue to operate during a shutdown, the agency said.

Excepted DOD activities include security operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Japan; military support operations in Iraq; inpatient and essential outpatient care in DOD medical treatment facilities; and financial management activities necessary to ensure the control and accountability of funds, among others, the department said.

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