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OMB head warns more employee furloughs possible and worker morale is a problem

OMB Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell says federal employees will be busy prioritizing their work since the end of the shutdown. “When you’re gone, when the government is shut for 16 days, certain things pile up,” she says. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Whatever glow Sylvia Mathews Burwell took from her 96 to 0 Senate confirmation vote in April must have quickly disappeared as she stepped into the deep muck of government budgeting. Employee furloughs, resulting from sequestration budget cuts, were just beginning when she took over as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Not long after many federal employees finished taking their unpaid leave days, discussions about a temporary budget measure to keep the government open were getting hot. Those discussions, of course, went nowhere and the nation was dragged through 16 days of a partial, yet painful, pointless and partisan government shutdown that ended Thursday.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

On Friday, Burwell, who was deputy OMB director among other positions during the Clinton administration, discussed the “lapse in appropriations,” as the OMB prefers to call it, and the future. One thing the future might hold, she said, is more furloughs. She also discussed the public’s trust in government, federal workplace morale and the impact of the shutdown on employee recruitment.

This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Is the government fully operational?

Yes, for the most part. As of yesterday, there didn’t seem to be any major issues in bringing the government back up. We haven’t seen any real problems so far.

I think the issue we’re going to see over time is the prioritization of work. When you’re gone, when the government is shut for 16 days, certain things pile up. It was the end of the fiscal year [when the shutdown began] and so we need to close the books. In addition, a number of hearings were delayed. In the short term, things seem to be up and running.

Can you place a dollar figure on closing and reopening the government?

That is, as I’m sure you can imagine, a difficult and challenging task. We will work on that. We are prioritizing getting the government back up and running and things on their way. We will look at that question.

How did the shutdown affect the level of trust and confidence the American people have in their government, and how might that affect federal employees?

I think one probably needs to distinguish between trust and faith in the political system and trust and faith in the federal employees and the day-to-day running of government. I would say those probably went in opposite directions.

As [President Obama] said, I think the American people are frustrated with the way their political system has or has not been working. However, at the other end of the spectrum, there is at least more appreciation for the fact that federal government employees and the government itself does many things people care deeply about on a day-to-day basis.

Did the shutdown hurt employee morale and productivity? If so, how can the administration manage any lowering of morale?

The shutdown comes on top of [sequestration] furloughs, [pay rate] freezes and a series of things. So I think it is fair to say . . . there is a negative impact on employee morale. While we will have to watch and observe, I don’t actually think it will lead to decreased productivity. What I think instead it will lead to are issues with regard to maintaining high-potential people in the federal workforce and our ability to attract the greatest talent.

Will recruitment be an issue, particularly among young people who may have other choices?

Yes, I do think it will be something that we have to carefully watch. I think it’s very important that we remember that many people . . . work in the federal government because they have a passion for certain issues and they believe this is a great place to have impact on those issues. Those are two things that haven’t changed. There are people out there who have a tremendous amount of passion about the things that we work on every day in government, whether it’s a scientist at NASA or the person who becomes a budget examiner. If we can get certainty back in the system . . . that will be a very helpful part of that recruitment.

Do you expect any more furloughs this fiscal year?

If we are at these lower [House Republican budget] levels, you will see departments working hard to manage this in lots of different ways.

That sounds like furloughs are a possibility?


Are there any particular agencies or departments where you think that might happen?

It’s on a case-by-case basis.

Do you have any idea how widespread the furloughs might be?

No, I think it depends where things land as part of this conference [between the House and Senate over the government’s budget].

The continuing budget resolution allows for a 1 percent pay raise for federal employees to take effect in January. Do you expect any congressional opposition to the pay raise?

We don’t know what will happen, but what we do know is the president supported it, so the executive branch is in full support and now we have seen a vote of Congress that keeps it in place.

If there is congressional opposition . . .

The administration will continue to support their budget position.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

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