The Washington Post

Government shutdown and fed employees: Working through uncertainty

Imagine, for a moment, that you aren’t sure if you have to go to work on Monday. That you don’t know whether or not you’ll get a paycheck next week, or the week after. That you have no idea how long it will be, if you are furloughed, before your work resumes again. 

Now imagine leading a team of people dealing with that kind of uncertainty. Pretty awful, huh?

But that’s exactly what the thousands of managers who work for the federal government are coping with right now. As the clock ticks on what increasingly appears to be a likely government shutdown, paralysis has surely set in at many government workplaces across Washington and elsewhere. Meetings can’t be planned. Progress can’t be made. New projects have to be put on hold.

The irony of some conservatives’ apparent enthusiasm over the prospect of a shutdown is that the very  issue they so frequently bemoan—government inefficiency—is dramatically worsened by this now months-long threat of a shutdown. Efficacy is not just about how many dollars are spent, how many benefits are trimmed or how many programs are funded. It’s about how well the people behind the scenes actually doing the work remain focused on their jobs and the tasks at hand.

 Anyone who’s ever worked in an office where furloughs or layoffs were coming—and that’s many of us in today’s economy—knows how distracted people can be by uncertainty. (Workers deemed “essential” will not be furloughed in the case of a shutdown. Fewer than half of the 2.1 million federal workers will stay home; postal service employees and uniformed military personnel are also exempt.) Many may say that we’ve all had to deal with the threat of losing our paychecks permanently, while government workers will  receive back pay once the shutdown is over if Congress—many members of which have not been the friendliest toward government workers—decides to approve itContract workers are unlikely to see back pay at all.

But the ongoing uncertainty for federal workers is undeniably worse. While there’s been a dim, ongoing threat of unemployment for seemingly everyone working in America in recent years, announcements in the private sector tend to come more swiftly, with hard facts and solid timing about when and why the furlough will be happening in short order. While it may be just as painful, if not more so given the lack of a shot at back pay, the will-they-or-won’t-they lead-up for private sector workers tends to be shorter and less muddled, since company leaders themselves are in control of the budget .

Meanwhile, Congress and the White House have been engaged in a months-long effort to come to an agreement on the budget for 2011—a fiscal year that is now, quite remarkably, half over. An incredible seven stop-gap measures have been filed, and an eighth one proposed, to fund the government while Congress and the White House try to reach a consensus. As a result, there are a whole lot of workers who surely feel as if leaders in Washington are playing politics with their paychecks—and their sanity.

For managers in the federal government, there is little they can do to keep employees focused and projects on task other than to follow the common leadership advice of sharing as much information as possible as soon as possible and as candidly as possible. In the end, they are at the mercy of leaders in Congress and the White House who will decide their fates. While trimming the budget amid our government’s fiscal woes is a critical and necessary step, one can only hope that political leaders keep in mind that the only way real efficiency will happen in the federal government is through motivated and focused employees. No amount of budget cutting can achieve it alone.  

More from On Leadership:

The federal worker’s shutdown guide

John Boehner: A man in the middle

The true cost of a government shutdown

Panel discussion: Is government shutdown the epitome of inefficiency?

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.


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