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Government Shutdown: What Are IT Systems Risks?

If the looming government shutdown comes to pass, Federal IT faces security, budget, and workflow risks.
"I'm assuming there's a core set of IT people designated as essential in order for them to serve the other essential employees. The last shutdown we didn't go home," Evans said. "I'd like to think they all have their plans, that everything's in place ... because this is what FISMA was supposed to be looking at."

When OMB issued a memo providing planning guidance in advance of a "potential lapse in appropriations" on Sept. 17, the directive made no direct mention of staffing IT operations. Instead, it focused on which of a limited number of essential government functions much be supported -- such as national defense, public safety and programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, even if their funding ceases.

"There isn't any guidance from [the Office of Personnel Management] or OMB on the subject [of IT operations] that I know of," said a senior IT adviser at one federal agency. "My guess is that if someone is deemed crucial to supporting services or programs that involved life-sustaining or emergency activities, and probably most crucial folks in cyber defenses, they'll probably be exempted."

[ How will a shutdown affect Obamacare? Read Tech Glitches Trip Obamacare Exchange Launches. ]

Another complicated dimension of the shutdown is how to handle IT procurements. There is always a rush of spending at the end of a fiscal year, as agencies make purchases in order to not lose allocated funds. But combining that with a shutdown brings added risks, said Forman.

"There are many end-of-year contracting actions that are clogged for a number of reasons this year, and the people who are orchestrating the shutdown prioritization and communication decisions are not available to perform the end-of-year actions," said Forman. That can lead to a higher risk that more contracting actions will be "done wrong or not done" and result in "decision errors or miscommunication to the IT contractors."

Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, agrees with that assessment.

"If you have a clogged system and you don't have sufficient acquisition folks working, it's just going to make the clogging worse," he said. "If [the shutdown] is just a day or two, it won't be that bad. If it's longer, like the one in 1996 that was 22 days, it will be much worse."

Davis said the government stands to lose a minimum of a billion dollars, and it could be several billion, because of the costs associated with shutting down and starting up operations along with associated delays.

He offered some advice to the IT professionals who will be wrestling with both keeping systems functional and protecting them.

"Just keep doing your job. There's a lot of dysfunction in the government right now," he said. "In the last shutdown when Congress was squabbling, the only adults were the government employees who just kept doing their jobs."