With a deal having been struck to end the 16-day shutdown in the US, the wheels of government administration are starting to turn once again. But, writes Prof Perri 6, restarting is not a simple case of ‘picking up where we left off’ and the legacy challenges for those involved in public management are significant.
- This is an edited version of a post that appeared on the Queen Mary University London ‘Centre for Government and Leadership’ blog during the US shutdown.
Restarting the US government machine will bring new headaches, on top of the ones caused during the shutdown itself.
To begin with, a great many trucks, fleet cars, laptops and other “mobile assets” will be in the wrong places because they stood still when the government stopped. It will take a few days to get those back to where they should be.
More serious, databases get out of date very quickly. Claimants, litigants and service users move house, change jobs, have children, even die. Apart from the backlog problem this creates, all sorts of technical problems arise.
Different databases may find they can’t talk to each other: finding contradictory records, one system might try to correct another and pass on out-of-date information; alerts may not happen; records may get deleted. Not every system will work properly when turned on again. Data systems need constant maintenance if they are not to fall over.
Remember too that the shutdown began when some congressional Republicans held up the budget to wring concessions from Mr Obama’s health insurance programme. Before the shutdown, when “Obamacare” began its implementation, the scheme faced overwhelming demand. As things restart, many of the information systems on which it depends could be deluged. Indeed, in many states, those systems were already creaking before the shutdown.[i]
What should you do about a backlog? Well, that’s obvious, surely? Your well-motivated staff work harder and faster than they normally would to get through the work.
But staff returning after their enforced “furlough” are the ones who were not “excepted” from the shutdown. In 1995, the rules were changed so that staff sent home without pay were no longer called “non-essential”. Supposedly, “excepting” them would make them feel more valued than being called unnecessary.
But being sent home without pay while your colleagues are told they must stay has the same effect on morale, whatever euphemism is used. If those “not excepted” staff are clearing the backlogs, they might need incentives. And good luck with offering them assurances about their position in future years’ standoffs over the budget.
Backlogs of cases in immigration, passport, courts, and other services raise an ancient public management dilemma. The point of those services is that checking of cases is supposed to be very thorough. Thoroughness ensures that only those entitled to citizenship get the prized document, no villains get into the country and citizens get full justice.
Rushing to clear backlogs quickly undermines the quality of the work, or even its purpose. Sod and Murphy’s other law of public administration is that a backlog not dealt quickly with only grows over time. If you doubt that, ask the British passport agency about that problem, or indeed the last refugees from the now defunct Child Support Agency.
The bigger real public management problems from the shutdown could be long term ones. Attracting and retaining staff will only become more difficult if potential employees conclude that the political parties are ready for a shutdown any year they can’t agree on yet another late budget. Solving that problem with higher pay isn’t just expensive.
It also signals to people whom we hope are motivated by intrinsic facts about public service that government can only motivate with cash. That affects work motivation itself. The same process could work even sooner with contractors whether they provide kit or specialist skills. They will demand premium rates to cover themselves for the risk of future shutdowns. The will insist on contract clauses which transfer the risk back to government, just when conventional public management wisdom is that governments should transfer risk to contractors.
But, you might think that if the US government can plan for the damage caused when it shuts down, it will plan for all these restart processes? Well, not obviously, no. To its credit, a congress that could not agree a budget or a debt ceiling managed unanimously to pass an emergency law providing that at the end of the shutdown, back pay will be indeed be paid. But nothing more.
Departmental planning for a shutdown started in 2011. Probably, managers who were able to, will have found ways to hoard some funds ready for the shutdown – but Treasury rules will have prevented many from doing so.
Guidance from 2011 described what plans for a shutdown should include. But none of its bullet points required departments to write restart or recovery plans. Consult those departmental plans. You will find that most devote pages to lists of “excepted” workers; most set out procedures for shutdown day. But few plans say anything substantial about what to do in the days, weeks and months after the return to work.
The headaches and the scars will last for some time in management of services, contracts and inspections. US public managers will probably be working through their hangover from this shutdown for months. This will surely become a case study in public management courses for years to come.
- The author would like to thank Nick Manning, Tony Bertelli and Brendon Swedlow for their help with this post.
[i] See e.g., The Economist, 15th October 2013, at http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21587816-signing-up-obamacare-still-ridiculously-hard-obamacare-software-mess.