No comment: Federal workers afraid to speak about shutdown

September 27, 2013

The 2 million federal employees who work for the world’s oldest democracy may have a lot to say about how Washington’s potential government shutdown could affect their lives and livelihoods.

They just aren’t allowed to say it.

The Labor Department headquarters, one of many federal buildings full of federal employees who aren't talking about the shutdown. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP-Getty).
Federal workers have been told not to discuss the possible shutdown with the media. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP-Getty)

During meetings with supervisors this week, employees across government agencies said they were told which category they would fall into in the event of a shutdown: “excepted,” as in allowed to work, or “non-excepted,” as in told to go home.

Then they were told not to discuss the issue with the media.

“Please take out what I said if it’s going to be in The Washington Post,” wrote a federal worker, who had been interviewed on Wednesday. The worker had spoken at length about rising frustration among younger federal employees who were once honored to work for their country but now find the current climate causing them to polish up their resumes and question their career choice.

“Today guidance was issued about communications related to this issue, “ the employee wrote. “And I could be in a lot of trouble.”

What did that guidance say?

“I can’t talk to you,” the employee said. “And I can’t tell you that I can’t talk to you.”

There was no government-wide gag order, which would likely require a White House memo to agency heads and raise whistle-blower protections and First Amendment issues. But individual agencies have been telling employees that any inquiries from members of the media should be directed to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to ensure that official, consistent information is being provided.

OMB did not return calls for comment on the issue of no commenting.

If the federal government shuts down next week, it could affect more than 800,000 federal workers who could be told to stay home and may lose pay. A shutdown would also hit ordinary Americans by shutting down everyday services from garbage pick-up to museums and the National Zoo.

Is that directive upsetting federal government workers who just want to express how a shutdown could affect their lives?

“You would have to refer that question to the OMB,” an agency’s media relations spokesperson sighed in response. “I know, it’s Kafkaesque. It’s not like we are giving away national security secrets. I mean, we are just speaking out about the chance of furloughs.”

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers veterans, veterans' affairs and the culture of government. She's an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade. She also covered immigration, crime and education for the Metro staff.
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Josh Hicks · September 27, 2013