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The Government is Shut Down: Should We Shut Down this Column?

Originally published October 15, 2013

This is obviously a rhetorical question, but the federal government shutdown starting on October 1, 2013, has raised a significant number of questions. And many of these questions do have answers, at least partial answers and estimates through the diligent and rigorous application of business intelligence (BI).

First of all, let’s talk about the mechanics of the shutdown. In our system, for the executive branch to function, it must have the money to pay for its activities, which include all the federal government and its programs. Money is required to pay all federal employees; to fund government grants and contracts; to pay rent, phone bills, and electricity bills; and buy gasoline for its cars and airplanes. Money is needed to fight the wars, keep air traffic moving, pay for Medicare and Social Security, forecast the weather, do research on a vaccine for botulism, issue passports, fight forest fires, inspect our food supply, provide emergency assistance when floods or tornados hit, keep our nuclear stockpile secure, protect our borders, bury our veterans, fight cancer, keep our national parks and monuments open, prevent terrorist attacks, identify the spread of epidemics, etc., etc., etc. The federal government needs money to the tune of $1 trillion a year to do these and the myriad other things we as a society have chosen to address through the action of our elected representatives – Congress – who must authorize and agree to pay for each program via an approved budget tied to each fiscal year.

Well, disagreement over whether we should be spending a bit more or a bit less has gotten in the way of this process over and over again. Usually it’s just about the numbers, and typically the standoffs don’t last much longer than a few hours or days. However, this time the argument seems to be over principles; and, as a result, we have this shutdown.

It started over Obamacare and the Republicans wanting to prevent its implementation by not funding it in the budget. With the House solidly in Republican hands and the Senate controlled by Democrats, it was impossible to get a budget approved in time for the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. With no budget legally enacted – or a continuing resolution, which basically allows the government to continue spending at the same levels as approved under the previous year’s budget – the federal machinery shut down.

As this article is published, we will be into the third week of the shutdown; and by then the deadlock will no longer be over Obamacare but over the debt ceiling that impedes the government from borrowing money to pay its bills. Bottom line: no budget, no authorization to spend, and the federal light switch continues to be turned off.

But is it? This is where business intelligence can and should play a role. Not all of the federal government is shut down, only the part of the government that is controlled by congressional appropriations detailed in the annual budget. It is estimated that about 40% of the federal workplace is affected – approximately 2 million workers.
So what is shut down and what is not? Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and many other entitlement programs are funded automatically, for example, and those checks will continue to go out. The Postal Service is self-funded – never mind that it’s been losing billions of dollars every year – hence it will continue to operate.

Some of the federal employees who provide critical services such as air traffic controllers, airport inspectors and forest fire fighters will continue on the job and be paid with special emergency funds that federal agencies have created precisely for such situations. Using this rationale, the Department of Defense has now called back to work thousands of civilian employees who had been furloughed since they are necessary to keep the nation safe.

And then there are exemptions and exemptions and exemptions. No politician wanting to be re-elected will ever be accused of not paying our men and women in uniform who are in harm’s way fighting our wars; so soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are being paid. And many FEMA employees have returned to work voluntarily in order to prepare for coming tropical storms and flooding.

As pressure builds to open up some programs, the House has passed a number of bills authorizing their return to work in a piecemeal basis. Mind you that the Senate still needs to also provide their approval, but that is more likely than not for many of these popular programs, such as the Pay Our Military Act, to make sure the troops are going to get paid This one has already been signed into law. Other examples of bills that have been passed by the House are below. By the time this article is published they may have already been signed into law:

  1. Pay our Guard and Reserve Act: Pays the National Guard and Reserves members for training and other duties during the shutdown.

  2. Veterans Benefits Continuing Appropriations Resolution: Keeps funding veteran benefits during the shutdown.

  3. District of Columbia Continuing Appropriations Resolution: Keeps Washington, D.C., where the majority of members of Congress live, functioning.

  4. National Institutes of Health Continuing Appropriations Resolution: Funds continuing medical research.

  5. Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) Continuing Appropriations Resolution: Pays the people who come to our aid during emergencies.

  6. National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art and Holocaust Museum: It’s unfair and unpatriotic not to allow visiting Americans to see their national monuments.

  7. Head-Start for Low Income Children Act: Funds this educational program for children from poor families.

  8. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Continuing Appropriations Resolution: Funds the FDA whose mission is to keep our food and pharmaceuticals safe.

  9. Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Continuing Appropriations Resolution: Provides money for the WIC program run by the Department of Agriculture.
So if the federal government is being reopened bit by bit, how should we decide what programs are more important and establish a priority list? How do we determine the timing? Can we estimate the impact on society and assure the taxpayers get what they pay for? It really falls back on the BI discipline.

Should we be Benthamite utilitarians? What brings the greatest good for the greatest number? What are these programs? Who do they impact and in what way? What are the metrics that allow us to measure performance?

Should we focus on essential services? Which are these? What do they cost? Who should decide?

Can we have federal services replaced by someone else like state or local governments or the private sector? If so, how and at what cost?

Should we focus on fairness and justice? How are we going to deal with the fact that we are going to pay government workers who were furloughed and stayed home the same salaries as those that actually had to go to work?

Fairness to the taxpayer? Why should the taxpayer have to pay at all for services that he or she never received since the government was not providing them? Should we all get a tax deduction proportional to the value of these unavailable services for the period of the shutdown?

There is a lot to think about here. How can BI help to make the process more rational and give the citizens a break during these complicated times of the shutdown?

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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