Much of the shutdown news focuses on what is closed (national parks, museums, or (gasp!) the panda cam) or what the public isn’t getting in the way of government services. However, the shutdown creates much deeper issues for the Department of Defense workforce and our military readiness.

In order to ensure the country doesn’t fall into complete chaos, politicians have coined the terms essential and nonessential. By definition, essential employees keep basic order and ensure important operations stay afloat until the government is back in business. But the terms can be misleading – at least for the general public.

Some claim that furloughing nonessential employees is good because if the employee isn’t considered essential then they are easily expendable and not needed. One news station goes so far as to call this a “slimdown” instead of a “shutdown.” This is shortsighted, and it is trying to position the shutdown as a cost saving measure instead of the political game that it actually is. Unfortunately, the federal employee sits in the middle of the game taking hit after hit without a referee to cry foul.

The Research Brain Drain

Right now, everything from research and development to intelligence support has gone dark. For example, the agencies that develop technologies and solutions that keep America’s warfighters safe, contribute to the defense of the nation, and find use in interagency organizations do not have federal employees managing the projects and delivering capabilities and training for end users.

Simply pulling a thread on a sweater can seem like an innocent solution to fixing a problem…until it begins to unravel the sweater, leaving the sweater useless and lacking shape. The same concept applies to American capabilities and technology. Without a structured analysis of current defense capabilities and future defense needs, it is foolish to simply apply broad measures that have negative impacts on important work. Dedicated and visionary DOD civilian employees begin to lose motivation to meet mission goals when zero thought is applied to what should and should not be cut.

The inability to create a workable and bipartisan budget was the beginning of the research brain drain. Constant continuing resolutions force DOD leadership to waste time on pointless budget drills, reports, and meetings.

Next on the brain drain train was sequestration…a blindly applied budget cut. Now, the final straw is the government shutdown, bringing mission goals to a halt.

Insult to Injury: Pay Freezes, Furloughs

Public opinion often falsely claims that civil servants are overpaid and could use a taste of what the rest of the country is facing. These perceptions only add to historically low morale across the federal workforce. Federal employees have had a three year pay freeze, hiring freezes, no bonuses in many agencies, budget cuts, furloughs throughout the summer, and unfair targeting by politicians – and this all before the government shutdown.

The pay freeze alone – which includes zero cost of living increases – creates frustration for federal employees. When poorly executed budget cuts, unreasonable political targeting, furloughs, and shutdowns are heaped on to the pile, patience runs thin and employees shift from the passive job search seat into the active job search seat. Many federal employees who were eligible for retirement have left, leaving fewer employees to carry on critical tasks. With the shutdown, remaining federal employees contemplate the prospect of unemployment and begin searching for part or full-time work.

Options are challenging to gauge when the furlough parameters are undefined indefinitely. Ultimately, without any indication on whether or not employees will receive retroactive pay, DOD employees are left with significant questions about their jobs and their employer. And if it doesn’t seem fair to pay employees for not sitting at an office, it might be good to check out Congress’ work record versus pay record. Simply sitting at a desk each day does not necessarily constitute work.

Politics Over Prudence

Politics determines what agencies can or should operate during a government shutdown. While some DOD agencies have multi-year appropriations, they have not been allowed to continue working during previous furloughs due to blanket cuts and the Defense’s approach that ‘everyone share the pain.’ Share the pain sounds nobler than it is. Most DOD employees take great pride in their work and want to continue supporting operations; however, the shutdown has made this impossible. Time out of the office means an increased workload with decreased completion time when the office reopens. No one wants to feel like a pawn after dedicating energy, thought, and care to the Defense department’s missions and goals.

Policy? What Policy?

While all nonessential employees are forced to stay home, contractors continue to work on contracts that have already been awarded or funded. Contractors can decide to work at-risk and still bill the government for the hours worked during this time period. This is technically fine, until a program manager or contracting officer is needed to provide oversight or approval. Despite the contracting officers and program managers being unable to provide any communication, contractors can often continue working. In some agencies, contractors and IPAs have been able to continue working on the client site, which means that contractors are managing contractors. The policies that are in place for government and contractors are intended to avoid fraud.

The Bottom Line

When the shutdown ultimately ends, some damage will already be done. Employees are looking elsewhere – actively, as they encounter days at home and time on their hands. More employees may look to retire. When this shift happens, a knowledge base leaves with it. In any organization or company that has low morale, employees naturally start to look elsewhere. Often, top talent is the first to jump ship.

Right now, top employees are updating resumes, posting to job boards, and networking with an eye towards a departure. It may not happen during the shutdown. It may happen just when the economy and budget talks finalize. Defense contractors looking to hire DOD personnel with expertise in growing areas (Special Operations, Cyber, Contracting and Acquisition, etc.) will not have to make a strong case to get talent on board.

America cannot continue to kick the federal workforce and then complain when bad things happen. An important thought to consider at this point is, what changes will make a difference to the DOD employee? It is not too late to start treating federal employees respectfully. For civil servants who have been sacrificing pay, morale, and more – for years – even small steps will make a critical difference.


Are you a government employee affected by the furlough? What will it take to win you back to federal service?

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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.