If the Government Shuts Down, Should I Go to That Conference?

Authored by Sean Tucker

It’s a simple question – if the government shuts down, should I still go to an event where the speaker is a government employee? – but no one seems to have a simple answer.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) referred us to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

OMB referred us to OPM.

DOD? Their spokeswoman replied, “Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of detail yet. You might try OPM. Or OMB. I’m not sure which.”

Next week, as is true most weeks, federal government officials are scheduled to speak at dozens of events scattered around the Washington, D.C. area, and a smaller number in other cities as well. Conferences. Seminars. Networking sessions.

They’re often your best chance to learn details about upcoming contracting opportunities, understand the government’s thinking on procurement issues, and introduce yourself to potential clients (it matters – so much that prime contractors tell us a relationship with the client is often the main reason they’re interested in teaming with a particular small business partner).

But with the government likely shut down, and 800,000 government workers told not to report to work, will the shows go on?

The answer, it seems, is hard to come by. We contacted half a dozen officials from various departments who are scheduled to speak at events next week, and none would answer, on the record, about their plans.

We contacted the event planners who organize the discussion panels, conferences and webinars – and though some told us their plans off the record, few would be quoted.

One who would – Thomas Van Leunen, Senior Director of Communications for the Navy League of the United States – said his organization’s 2011 Sea-Air-Space Exposition will go on. But, he admitted, “The majority of our speakers are active duty military or very senior government officials who would likely continue to work in the event of a government shutdown.”

That line of thinking, at least, provides us with a clue. Some government employees will continue to work even in the event of a shutdown, because their work is deemed essential to protecting life or liberty. Other, not deemed essential, will stay home as part of the wave of furloughs.

Those who are furloughed may not even be permitted to attend events at their own expense. The official memo provided to government employees by the OPM includes this helpful Q & A:

Q: May an employee volunteer to do his or her job on a non-pay basis during a shutdown furlough?

A: No. Unless otherwise authorized by law, an agency may not accept the voluntary services of an employee. (See 31 U.S.C. 1342.)

By one interpretation, that means that government employees couldn’t speak as representatives of their employer, even at their own expense. We called OPM to be sure, and they referred us… ok, you know where this is going, don’t you?

Bottom line? If you’re unsure whether an event you had planned to attend will be affected by the shutdown, call and ask. A number may be cancelled (again, few of those event planners would speak to us on the record, but off the record? Yeah, call ahead to be sure).

But if the event is going on, even with a reduced number of speakers, you might want to keep to your plans to attend. Inevitably, some of your competitors will stay home – and in the end, these are networking events. If you’re one of the few people who show up, you’ll have better odds of making a meaningful business connection than if you aren’t.

Sean Tucker covers the federal government and the contracting industry for GovWin.com, the network that helps government contractors win new business every day. He can be reached at [email protected].

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