Fast Facts

Generally, federal agencies are only allowed to spend the money that Congress has given them. During a government shutdown, agencies may not have funds—raising questions about whether work may continue. How do agencies plan for this?

We reviewed 4 agencies’ contingency plans and operations during FY 2019’s partial shutdown. The plans generally followed federal guidance, but didn’t cover prolonged shutdown scenarios.

Of the 4:

2 documented shutdown processes

3 tracked which employees worked

None had computer network controls to prevent logging on

Our recommendations are to help improve these agencies’ shutdown plans and operations.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issues shutdown guidance for agencies in Circular A-11. Of four selected agency components, three—U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the International Trade Administration (ITA)—operated in fiscal year (FY) 2019 under contingency plans that included most of the key information elements specified in Circular A-11 . The plan that the fourth one—Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)—operated under, authored by the Executive Office of the President, did not include a majority of the key information elements.

OMB guidance instructs agencies to have plans in place for both short and prolonged—longer than 5 days—shutdowns. None of the four selected agencies' FY 2019 contingency plans fully addressed anticipated changes in the event of a prolonged shutdown. GAO found that IRS, ITA, and USTR internally discussed and planned for anticipated operational changes in the event of a prolonged FY 2019 shutdown. CBP officials said they only focused on short-term operational needs. Having a comprehensive plan for a potential prolonged shutdown would help provide clearer workforce expectations during any future shutdowns.

Having sufficient internal controls, such as documented policies and procedures, in place prior to a shutdown can help agencies implement changes in day-to-day operations during a shutdown. Selected agency components all incorporated some internal controls in their shutdown-related activities, as shown in the table below. However, none of the agency components had controls for limiting both physical and virtual workspace access for employees during a shutdown, each citing the difficulty of implementing such controls. Having these controls in place would help components ensure that they operate consistently with their contingency plans and avoid misuse of government resources.

Selected Agency Components Varied in the Sufficiency of Their Internal Controls

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Why GAO Did This Study

A lapse in appropriations resulted in the federal government partially shutting down from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019.

GAO was asked to evaluate agency contingency plans and operations during the FY 2019 shutdown. This report assesses the extent to which selected agencies and selected components (1) had contingency plans that were consistent with applicable OMB guidance, (2) planned for a potential prolonged shutdown and changed operations during the shutdown, and (3) had shutdown policies and procedures consistent with relevant internal control principles.

GAO selected CBP, IRS, ITA, and USTR as agency components for review because they are under the jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on Finance and were affected by the FY 2019 shutdown. GAO reviewed OMB's guidance, agencies' contingency plans, and other documentation. GAO interviewed agency and component officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 14 recommendations, including that certain agency components improve contingency plans, document shutdown procedures, and improve controls for physical and virtual workspace access during a shutdown. CBP and ITA agreed with the recommendations directed to them; IRS partially agreed with one and disagreed with two; and USTR did not state whether it agreed or disagreed, but has begun taking steps to implement two recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Commerce 1. The Secretary of Commerce should align the agency's contingency plan with OMB guidance by including (1) plans for a potential prolonged shutdown; (2) flexibilities available to supervisors if furloughed employees were unable to return to work after the end of the shutdown; and (3) procedures for resuming program activities, including steps to ensure appropriate oversight and disbursement of funds upon the end of a shutdown. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Department of Commerce agreed with the recommendation and stated that it will develop an action plan to address the recommendation to better align its contingency plan with OMB guidance. When we confirm what actions Commerce has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Homeland Security 2. The Secretary of Homeland Security should align the agency's contingency plan with OMB guidance by including (1) plans for a potential prolonged shutdown; (2) flexibilities available to supervisors if furloughed employees were unable to return to work after the end of the shutdown; and (3) procedures for resuming program activities, including steps to ensure appropriate oversight and disbursement of funds upon the end of a shutdown. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In September 2020, DHS revised its contingency plan to instruct component organizations to identify additional personnel required for a prolonged shutdown lasting longer than 5 days. DHS also updated the non-public, for official use only portion of the contingency plan for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with the number of employees who would potentially be exempt or excepted if a shutdown lasted longer than 5 days. In its September 2020 update, DHS also added language to its contingency plan to inform employees about available flexibilities if they are unable to return to work after the end of a shutdown and to instruct components on procedures for resuming program activities at the conclusion of a shutdown, including procedures for oversight and disbursement of funds.
Internal Revenue Service 3. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should align the agency's contingency plan with OMB guidance by including (1) plans for a potential prolonged shutdown; (2) flexibilities available to supervisors if furloughed employees were unable to return to work after the end of the shutdown; and (3) procedures for resuming program activities, including steps to ensure appropriate oversight and disbursement of funds upon the end of a shutdown. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) partially agreed with the recommendation. IRS agreed with one element of our recommendation to include additional detail in its agency contingency plan and stated that it is in the process of adding procedures for resuming program activities following a government shutdown into its contingency plan. IRS did not agree with the other elements of the recommendation because it believes it has already addressed plans for a potential prolonged shutdown and flexibilities for supervisors if employees are unable to return to work at the end of a shutdown in its contingency plans. We agree that while IRS has included some details on these elements in its plans, we continue to believe that it should provide more detail, such as points in time when the furlough status of an employee may change, how many employees would be affected, and the legal basis for the changes, within its publically available contingency plan to fully address these elements. We will continue to monitor IRS's efforts in this area.
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative 4. The U.S. Trade Representative, in consultation with EOP as appropriate, should align the component's contingency plan with OMB guidance. This could be accomplished through (1) revisions to the EOP contingency plan; or (2) by creating a separate USTR plan. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. USTR stated that it has already begun addressing our recommendations on aligning its contingency plan with OMB guidance. When we confirm what actions USTR has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
International Trade Administration 5. The Under Secretary for International Trade should document the component's shutdown processes, including roles and responsibilities, planning processes for potential shutdowns, and recall processes for furloughed employees during a shutdown. (Recommendation 5)
Open
The Department of Commerce agreed with the recommendation and stated that the International Trade Administration (ITA) has documented its shutdown planning processes and recall processes for furloughed employees during a shutdown. When we confirm what actions ITA has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative 6. The U.S. Trade Representative should document the component's shutdown processes, including roles and responsibilities, planning processes for potential shutdowns, and recall processes for furloughed employees during a shutdown. (Recommendation 6)
Open
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. USTR stated that it has already begun addressing our recommendations on documenting its shutdown processes. When we confirm what actions USTR has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
United States Customs and Border Protection 7. The Commissioner of CBP should develop internal controls to track and document which employees worked and what work was performed daily during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 7)
Closed - Implemented
In December 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) created a daily hiatus tracker for use during a future shutdown. During a shutdown, the tracker system will send out auto-generated email notifications to all CBP employees, requesting that those determined as excepted or exempt check-in for the day. The tracker then allows each excepted or exempt employee to note their work status, CBP component organization, and the excepted or exempt function that they are performing. The tracker system will allow CBP officials to aggregate individual reports to the overall CBP level as well as the CBP component level.
United States Customs and Border Protection 8. The Commissioner of CBP should develop internal controls to limit access to physical workspaces to appropriate employees during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 8)
Open
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed with the recommendation but stated that because Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not have systems capable of efficiently restoring physical access for furloughed employees, it would have to reinstate employee access individually and the cost would be substantial. DHS stated that CBP plans to update procedures to ensure more comprehensive workspace access guidance for furloughed employees. We continue to believe that physical access controls are important during shutdowns in order to prevent misuse of government resources. We encourage CBP to improve their systems to be able to efficiently implement such controls and will monitor CBP's efforts going forward. In September 2020, CBP updated its shutdown guidance with additional language that emphasizes the importance of internal controls for limiting access to physical workspaces during a shutdown. However, in order to close the recommendation, GAO will need to receive and review additional documentation that shows that CBP components or organizations have incorporated access controls into their shutdown guidance. Examples of such documents may include planning memos or training materials that outline specific internal controls that will be used during a shutdown to help ensure that CBP components or organizations can implement shutdown guidance on limiting physical and virtual access for non-exempt/non-excepted personnel.
Internal Revenue Service 9. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop internal controls to limit access to physical workspaces to appropriate employees during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 9)
Open
The Internal Revenue Service disagreed with this recommendation. IRS stated that it believes that it has effective controls in place to manage physical workspace access during a shutdown. In addition, IRS said that it believes that implementing additional access controls do not justify the corresponding resource investments. We continue to believe that IRS should improve its access controls, which currently rely on managers and furlough letters to communicate limits on workspace access. While we recognize the costs of increased access controls, government shutdowns are unique events that require additional access controls in order to prevent potential misuse of government resources and will monitor IRS's efforts to address it.
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative 10. The U.S. Trade Representative should develop internal controls to limit access to physical workspaces to appropriate employees during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 10)
Open
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. USTR stated that it has made the Executive Office of the President (EOP) aware of the recommendations on developing controls for physical workspace access during a shutdown. We will continue to monitor USTR's efforts to address this recommendation.
United States Customs and Border Protection 11. The Commissioner of CBP should develop internal controls to limit access to virtual workspaces to appropriate employees during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 11)
Open
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed with the recommendation. DHS stated that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) believes that furloughed employees must be able to passively monitor the status of the government shutdown and access important agency communications using DHS-issued electronic devices. Additionally, disabling and reactivating thousands of employee user accounts during a shutdown posed a significant burden. DHS said that CBP plans to update shutdown procedures to clarify allowed use of DHS-issued electronic devices by furloughed employees. We agree that CBP should update procedures on workspace access as suggested, and continue to believe that virtual access controls are important during shutdowns in order to prevent misuse of government resources. We encourage CBP to improve their systems to be able to efficiently implement such controls and will monitor CBP's progress going forward. In September 2020, CBP updated its shutdown guidance with additional language that emphasizes the importance of internal controls for limiting access to virtual workspaces during a shutdown. However, in order to close the recommendation, GAO will need to receive and review additional documentation that shows that CBP components or organizations have incorporated access controls into their shutdown guidance. Examples of such documents may include planning memos or training materials that outline specific internal controls that will be used during a shutdown to help ensure that CBP components or organizations can implement shutdown guidance on limiting physical and virtual access for non-exempt/non-excepted personnel.
Internal Revenue Service 12. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop internal controls to limit access to virtual workspaces to appropriate employees during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 12)
Open
The Internal Revenue Service disagreed with this recommendation. IRS stated that it believes that it has effective controls in place to manage virtual workspace access during a shutdown. In addition, IRS said that it believes that implementing additional access controls do not justify the corresponding resource investments. We continue to believe that IRS should improve its access controls, which currently rely on managers and furlough letters to communicate limits on workspace access. While we recognize the costs of increased access controls, government shutdowns are unique events that require additional access controls in order to prevent potential misuse of government resources and will monitor IRS's efforts to address it.
International Trade Administration 13. The Under Secretary for International Trade should develop internal controls to limit access to virtual workspaces to appropriate employees during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 13)
Open
The Department of Commerce agreed with the recommendation and stated that the International Trade Administration (ITA) has established and documented internal controls to limit virtual workspace access to excepted or exempt employees during a government shutdown. When we confirm what actions ITA has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative 14. The U.S. Trade Representative should, in consultation with EOP, develop internal controls to limit access to virtual workspaces to appropriate employees during a government shutdown. (Recommendation 14)
Open
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. USTR stated that it has made the Executive Office of the President (EOP) aware of the recommendations on developing controls for virtual workspace access during a shutdown. We will continue to monitor USTR's efforts to address this recommendation.

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