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Shutdown Ramifications (Part II): 3 Hidden Costs to Federal Workforce

Now that a semblance of normality has returned to Washington it’s time to ask an important question:

  • What are the shutdown’s costs to the federal workforce?

We know the tangible costs in terms of dollars. But what about the hidden costs which are more difficult to measure?

In addition to lost economic productivity and America’s diminished leadership role on the world stage (see Part I of this series), the shutdown has resulted in at least 3 significant intangible costs that will hurt Uncle Sam going forward:

1) Further Erosion of Trust. Just when you thought it could not get any worse, government’s public approval ratings continue to plummet.

Unfortunately, public trust in government had eroded to dismal levels prior to the shutdown, according to a plethora of polls. Yet shuttering government has only made a bad situation worse.

According to a recent poll (10/16) by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press:

  • “The share of the public saying they are angry at the federal government, which equaled an all-time high in late September (26%), has ticked up to 30%.”
  • “Another 55% say they are frustrated with the government.”
  • “Just 12% say they are basically content with the federal government.”

In other words, according to the Pew poll, a whopping 88% of the American people are apparently discontent with the federal government. That’s clearly an unacceptable figure.

Lack of public trust severely undermines the effectiveness of government to function on an institutional level — an outcome which benefits no one.

2) Damage to Recruitment & Retention. It’s obvious that Uncle Sam must attract a new generation of young talent to federal service. This is a time-sensitive priority due to the so-called “retirement tsunami” and related “brain drain” of institutional expertise government-wide.

But the shutdown has likely caused more federal employees, applicants and potential hires to reassess public service. This was true to some extent already, particularly as agencies continue to operate on shoe-string budgets due to the ongoing sequester.

Therefore, it’s critical for Congress and the American people to recognize that federal agencies cannot function to maximum effectiveness when they are resource starved to the bone.

This may deter high-profile applicants with the special technical expertise that is badly needed at some agencies – especially to foster new IT innovations which will lead to improved federal services.

Uncle Sam cannot afford to continue losing out to the private sector on recruiting and retaining the best and brightest people to serve America, especially during this challenging time of “doing more with less.”

3) Sinking Morale. The morale of the federal workforce was unacceptably low even before the shutdown. This was evidenced by myriad public and private sector studies, including OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS).

As in any large organization, low employee morale may lead to decreased productivity and increased absenteeism – not to mention employee disengagement and indifference to critically important mission-related work, among other harmful ramifications.

In essence, these three hidden costs of the shutdown tend to feed off one another in a vicious cycle, negatively impacting the federal workforce in immeasurable ways.

Thus the cumulative post-shutdown impact will likely be felt by the federal family on a variety of fronts for some time to come.

And no price can be put on that.



  • Do you agree about the 3 hidden costs of the shutdown? If not, why?
  • If so, what are your suggestions to address and remedy these hidden costs?
  • Are there any hidden costs you would add?

In Case You Missed It

* All views and opinions are those of the author only.

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David B. Grinberg

FYI: Washington Post Federal Diary reports:

The shutdown is over, but federal employee morale still suffers

  • “In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 82 percent of participants in a random public survey said the budget dispute leading to the shutdown damaged that workforce’s morale.”

  • “Eighty-six percent said it damaged the nation’s image in the world.

Kathryn David

Thank you so much for posting this. I find that the damage to our reputation, both at home and abroad, is a serious consequence. It is up to U.S. citizens to try to change the poor perceptions of government but with so many of us negatively affected by the strike, it is hard to defend our government’s reputation.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for your interesting insights, Kathryn.

Yes, we government communicators certainly have our work cut out for us.

On that note, organizations such as the Federal Communicators Network (FCN) and the National Association of Government Communicators (NAGC) are even more beneficial during these challenging times — which calls for a “shoutout” to Britt, Dave, John and Glen for their exemplary work.

Jeffrey Levy

I’m not sure whether you count this as tangible or not, but an incredible amount of time was spent discussing, planning for, and implementing the shutdown, and probably an equal amount starting back up.

I don’t mean the people who formally planned; I mean every one of the 800,000 furloughed feds who had to figure out how to close down and restart, and the uncountable number of conversations in the hall, at lunch, via email and chat, etc. There’s also an enormous amount of managerial time and effort in keeping morale up as much as possible, sharing information as it becomes available, answering questions, etc.

David B. Grinberg

That’s an excellent point, Jeffrey, thanks so much for noting it.

No matter how one looks at it, countless hours upon hours were basically wasted with shutdown-related bureaucratic matters. This is time that should have been spent serving the public and stakeholders.

Then there’s the tremendous emotional and psychological toll taken on feds who had to restructure their lives around the shutdown. This certainly contributed to lower morale and outright outrage for folks who had to juggle financial responsibilities with personal issues such as childcare, etc — resulting in a tremendous work-life imbalance.

It appears this shameless shutdown resulted in no winners, only losers — including the federal workforce, the contractor community, Congress, the overall economy, America’s global credibility and, of course, the American people.

Let’s just hope that Congress learned their lesson and doesn’t make the same mistake twice, especially with the self-imposed deadlines approaching.

Thanks again, Jeffrey, for sharing your always astute observations.

Alicia Dickerson

Thank you for another solid post about the true costs of the government shutdown to our mission and reputation abroad, our domestic economy, and to the morale and readiness of our federal workforce.

Henry Brown

Most of the local media (Houston Tx) has ignored the costs of the shutdown, although there was one article that complained (my description) about the cost of restoring the moral of the federal work force Remember that Houston has a minimal federal presence with the exception of a NASA installation and would guess that a significant percentage of the NASA installation is contractors.

Mr. Cruz made a victory tour through Texas this week and IMO he was treated as well as most returning war heros and probably most musical rock stars

Both senators and my congressman’s facebook page(s) were full of admiration for the stand they took, In fact saw several posts stating that the federal work force shouldn’t get paid if they didn’t work..

David B. Grinberg

Thanks very much for your comments, Henry and Alicia. Your valuable feedback is appreciated.

Henry: remember what former House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say: “All politics is local.

I’ve read that some members of the House and Senate have stated it’s more important for them to be liked in their home states even if that means being vilified in Washington and/or within their own party. I suppose that makes sense for purposes of getting reelected and fending off potential primary challengers in advance.

On the other hand, it would sure be nice for a change if members of Congress put America’s best interests above their own partisan political self-interests. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Thanks again!

Julie Chase

1) Further Erosion of Trust. Just when you thought it could not get any worse, government’s public approval ratings continue to plummet.

This has been going on for quite sometime. People who do not work for the fed, are still out there trying to find work. Some are working part time and finding minimum wage is not working and that welfare pays more, so human nature goes follows that trail. And more trust is lost. Getting manufacturing jobs back in this country would be a boost to the economy. The “how” eludes me.

2) Damage to Recruitment & Retention.

Oh yeah, this is a given. Referring to the other discussion here on GovLoop, explains further the hoops the best and brightest must jump through in order to get in the door is a deterrent ……if they are not vets. The hiring rules that I have been told all along have not been followed like they should have been…and the push is on to “get it right”, which will leave a lot of the best and brightest looking at a closed door to working with fed. It is what it is. How to solve this….can’t be done without changing the entire hiring process. In the meantime the best and brightest are going to fed contracts, flipping burgers, or working at whatever they can get….because their student loans have to be paid.

3) Sinking Morale. Yes. We have 2 that are retiring…..and 2 more going in the summer of ’14. We have 2 billets that are vacant and will remain so…for how long? no one knows. Myself and several fledgling co workers are taking up the slack of an already busy day. The furlough didn’t help, as we are now in “catch up” mode and our customers (the military) are not happy with the continued delays of the services we provide. It can’t be helped….we can only do so much. And after our parts contractor returned this past Monday, we were still “waiting”, as the money faucet was not yet turned on. So we waited until after lunch before we could do anything. We are looking at this happening again in Jan-Feb.

How to fix it, I’m on the bottom of the food chain, I can only wait and hope things get better.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks so much for your always interesting insights, Julie.

  • I agree that “getting manufacturing jobs back in this country would be a boost to the economy.” However, at least some big industries, like automotive and others, are having a resurgence.
  • I like your point about “the hoops the best and brightest must jump through in order to get in the door.” OPM needs to reevaluate and streamline the federal hiring process to make it less cumbersome and more efficient and expeditious.
  • You make an excellent point about “fledgling co-workers taking up the slack” — albeit at the expense of delaying their core job functions. This entire theory of doing more with less is a misnomer in reality. The fact is that most employees in any industry do less with less. Fewer resources and personnel equate to less efficiency and effectiveness in carrying out mission-related work.

Again, many thanks for sharing your valuable insights, Julie — and good luck with everything in your workplace. As the saying goes, this too shall pass. Let’s just hope it doesn’t continue to pass like a kidney stone.

Earl Rice

Erosions of Trust: The erosions of trust, for the most part, is aimed directly at our elected officials and political appointees, and it is pretty much along party lines (Republicans love Republicans and hate Democrats, and vice versa). Not at the rank and file Civil Service. And, with all the scandals that have come out, there is no wonder. The botched events in Libya (though it makes people wonder, but that is in Libya, and very far away). The abuse of power by the IRS (and the press has started to state they know the cause wasn’t a few rouge agents, but directives from inside the Beltway). And, if there was ever a love to hate institution in America, it is the IRS. Try and think of one person (who doesn’t work for them) that likes the IRS. And then, the final last straw was the turning of the NSA “ears” onto the American people. Very few people (except the Intelligence and Military communities) had heard of the NSA before this. Then when they find out that such an Agency exists, and worse has been listening in on the American people with Presidential approval, well that leaves a bitter taste in their mouth to say the least, like they have been violated over and over and didn’t even know it. The erosion of trust is aimed much much higher than the rank and file Civil Servants. As far as our reputation abroad, the NSA spying has destroyed way more of it than just having the Government shut down for a couple of weeks could ever do. If you read the news, our allies are livid that they were spied on (case in point, the German Chancellor, the French President, being the most vocal, and there will be more at the EU summit coming up).

Damage to Recruitment and Retention: A given, well to some degree, but this will not be as bad as what some may think. There is a lot of talk of the tsunami of retirements coming and if they don’t hire the kids straight out of school, the best and the brightest (nice buzz words there), the government will collapse and the world as we know it will cease. [I have been watching the TV series “Revolution” and that strikes me as what some people are projecting will happen if we don’t’ get joe/jane college student hired] . Let’s just look at this for a second. When the higher ranking (say GS 13 through GS 15) people retire, there will be GS 12, 13s, and 14s, looking to take their place (and remember retirement is based on the high 3, so if they do get promoted, they will be around for at least 3 more years). And, GS 9 and 11s looking to take their place. And so on. The only place there may end up being a shortage would be at the GS 5 or 6 level. [Right now I hate announcing GS 5 level jobs, because those are the ones that will have 300 to 600 applicants apply.] Bluntly, the best and the brightest probably aren’t going to work for GS 5 pay (it’s slightly above the poverty level, but not much, a single person could live on it, maybe, but it sure isn’t enough to raise a family on or pay off your student loans). And, it is a fact that over the last 5 to 10 years, the Government has way over hired. Part of this was GWOT influenced, but another part was trying to reduce unemployment by hiring more people into the Civil Service. Sequestration was intentionally designed to rectify this. So do we really need to get super concerned with retention and recruitment. I was once told the way to measure your importance in the government is by putting your hand into a bucket of water, and then pull it out. Bluntly, if an organization is so fragile, that the whole system will crash because people retire, then they need to review their organizational structure. I know when I retire in 2 ½ years, there will be at least 50 fully qualified applicants wanting my job. One train of thought is that each employee that resigns may be one employee that you don’t have to pay severance pay to. Each person that is not hired, may be one less employee that you don’t have to pay severance pay to. The damage to recruitment and retention may be a blessing in disguise. And, by spring we should know whether it is or not. Side note: There is a huge tsunami of the American people that are starting to ask serious questions about “if” the Federal Government hasn’t become way too big, way over stepped their bounds in regulating the aspects of life, “if” maybe this country is turning into more and more of a police state with everything they do being regulated to the point of oppression and absolutism contrary to the Constitution. Though I do not subscribe to this, I also keep a keen eye on what is going on in the country, the entire county. I didn’t see any acknowledgement of this when I was in the DC area, but once I came back to the Midwest, I was in shock at how many people are starting to fear the current Administration.

David B. Grinberg

Thank very much for the enlightening analysis, Earl. You make several excellent points, some of which I address in a new post: 5 Shutdown Silver Linings for the Federal Workforce. I would appreciate any followup feedback you may have on this.

David B. Grinberg

FYI: The Washington Post reports

Young workers souring on federal careers

  • Disillusioned by furloughs and worried about budget cuts and pay freezes, many young federal employees such as Linton say that they can’t help but look toward the door.”
  • The government and private companies alike are vulnerable to the departure of younger employees because they often have high-tech skills that are much in demand and they are willing to jump at new opportunities.”
  • “While a government job still remains attractive to many, the continuing turbulence of federal work has made the government a less competitive employer.”

Millennials: what say you?

Dave Hebert

Thank you, David, for your kind words about the FCN. The shutdown serves as a powerful motivation for us to help facilitate greater communication in general and more effective and frequent training for gov employees with comm. responsibilities. Look for the FCN to offer a more robust curriculum in the future.