What happens to e-government if government shuts down?

The prospect of a federal shutdown brings the importance of e-government into sharp relief.

Test PatternAs the government shutdown clock ticks inexorably forward, many people are wondering how much of government will continue to operate or, in a literal sense, stay online.

If the government shutdown takes .gov sites offline, visitors may encounter a standard notice that the funding lapse is to blame. (In a perfect world, visitors to the Oatmeal might even encounter a custom graphic for government.)

The rest of the online world won’t be going offline, however, and thankfully there has been no shortage of reporting about what will happen to government websites in the event of a government shutdown.

Declan McCullaugh, reporting on potential federal government website shutdowns for CNET, highlighted the rub of the matter: “This is something of an unprecedented situation for federal Web sites, which were in an embryonic stage during the last government shutdown in the mid-1990s.”

Would a government shutdown push government websites offline? According to reporting available this morning, the best answer appears to be a qualified “yes,” but with exceptions. The best bet is that many .gov websites will be left static, as opposed to going offline altogether, although top White House officials have indicated some may go dark.

From Federal Computer Week:

A senior Obama administration official said on April 6 that in event of a shutdown, “most federal websites will not continue to operate. Those that will continue to operate are part of excepted activities, meaning they protect safety of life or property or receive funding from other sources, such as user fees or multi-year appropriations.” Excepted activities include those related to law enforcement, health, public safety and national security.

More perspective of what citizens could expect with respect to e-government came yesterday in a White House memo that included official guidance on information technology:

The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency’ s activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency’s website during such a lapse. However, if maintenance of the website is necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities (e.g., maintenance of the IRS website may be necessary to allow for tax filings and tax collection, which are activities that continue during an appropriations lapse), then the website should remain operational even if its costs are funded through appropriations that have lapsed. If it becomes necessary to incur obligations to ensure that a website remains available in support of excepted activities, it should be maintained at the lowest possible level. For example, in the IRS case above, the IRS website would remain active, but the entire Treasury Department website would not, absent a separate justification or a determination that the two sites cannot not feasibly be operated separately.”

In other words, add “tax collection” to that list of excerpted e-activities as well. From ComputerWorld:

“We need to be able to collect the money that is owed to the U.S. government,” said a senior Obama administration official, speaking with reporters on background Tuesday. “And that’s the same process as issuing electronic refunds, so electronic refunds and collection of monies will continue.”

As the old saying goes, there are no certainties in life but death and taxes.

There’s much more to consider in e-government than whether the websites themselves would stay up, including ubiquitous government mobile phones and the IT systems that support many core functions. It’s not clear whether Americans are likely to continue to see the President and his BlackBerry. Cutting the digital tether elsewhere, however, will that mean tens of thousands of government workers will be turning in mobile devices, laptops and other IT gear. The impact of a shutdown on federal IT services is likely to highlight just how dependent many government functions have become on technology over the decades.

Does government social media go on furlough?

There’s another new wrinkle to consider in the event of a shutdown: official government accounts on social media services like Facebook or Twitter, and the personal accounts of government workers. As Karen Tumulty reported in the Washington Post on Wednesday:

… under the provisions of a 19th-century law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, it is quite literally illegal for federal employees deemed nonessential to voluntarily work during a shutdown. In the modern era, that means they can’t use e-mail or voice mail.

If a “non-exceptioned” government worker provides information, answers questions or performs anything related to work using a social media account, they might be seen as violating their furlough.

On the other hand, government workers who serve in core functions in emergency response and national security will still be at work and operating their official social media accounts. Notably, the Associated Press reported yesterday that the U.S is set to begin using Twitter and Facebook for terror alerts. While the alerts don’t start until the end of April, the news drives home how much social media has become integrated into the nation’s communications ecosystem.

There are plenty of other observers wondering what the furlough would mean for tweeting. As Nancy Scola mused in techPresident, this is unexplored territory:

This whole business isn’t something that even agencies themselves have necessarily thought through. I emailed the State Department’s press shop this morning to try to get some clarification about what’s official, what’s not, and whether the distinction has any meaning any more. When a State press person called back this afternoon, it quickly became clear to both of us that they’re not real clear internally on how they’re thinking about the matter. We nailed down that @StateDept is an official Twitter account. Beyond that, she pledged to follow up.

Given the increasing importance of social media in a time of need, in crisis response, and growth of digital diplomacy, there will be many tricky choices ahead for the nation’s government workers. It would be very surprising, for instance, if FEMA administrator Craig Fugate did not use all of the communication tools he has at his fingertips were a crisis to arise, up to and including his @CraigAtFEMA Twitter account.

How many .gov websites are there?

One interesting observation that emerged from reading over the coverage of what happens to federal websites during a shutdown: no outlet is reporting how many .gov websites exist. Way back in 2001, a UN benchmarking study found over 50,000 .gov websites worldwide.

In the decade since, the conventional wisdom would be to expect that there would be more .gov websites than before.

Across the Atlantic, for instance, in 2008 it was unclear how many government websites existed in the United Kingdom: 2,500 was the estimate offered up then. Fast-forward to today’s UK initiatives to streamline online spending and that number appears to be down to 820 websites, with review that may reduce that further.

There’s another saying to consider as Congress weighs budget cuts to federal e-government spending: you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

To whit: How many .gov websites are there? How many people visit each one? There’s no audit in the 2010 UN E-Government Survey. There’s no official database that’s currently available for citizens to browse. At the federal level, a white paper that came out of the presidential transition estimated that there were 24,000 U.S. government websites online in 2009, when the paper was published. That answer came from a reference librarian, Jeannie Straub, who answered a Quora question I posed.If you have a better answer, please share in the comments below, on Quora, or via Facebook.

Photo: dtv svttest by kalleboo, on Flickr

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