The Human Cost of the Government Shutdown



For over four decades, I have worked as either a consultant or a senior executive for both the private and public sectors. During that time, I had become a trusted advisor and confidant to many ‘leaders’ who wielded major influence over their followers. As a result, I have been privileged enough to have been engaged in countless conversations and deliberations with or about peers and subordinates who revealed their level of job satisfaction, overall happiness, or lack of, with the organization.

Time and time again, the typical dialogue with employees always started with those mundane technical or procedural issues only to end with complaints about the leadership styles of those who managed the organization.  At times, I found it difficult to be privy to those countless conversations because I was well-aware that in many cases it was just a matter those ‘internal politics’ that shaped the culture. It was the way that most organizations operated and survived. Then there were those ‘external politics’ that blew through the halls of each and every organization like a virus; and was often successful in tearing through the very core of those organizations. I was reminded of the consequences of ‘external politics’ during the recent government shut down.

According to reports from the Office of Management and Budget, the October’s 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government cost taxpayers about $2 billion in lost productivity from 850,000 furloughed employees. The statistics were the result of a report produced to show ‘the economic toll of the gridlock in Congress’.  In the report, the budget office estimated in 1996 that the two shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996, which lasted 26 days total, cost the government $1.4 billion, or roughly $2.1 billion in today’s dollars.

But what about the human costs?

During the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns, I was the chief information officer for a federal agency. And I witnessed firsthand how the ‘external politics’ of our political leaders tore into the very depths of the organization and produced long-lasting issues with employee morale, productivity, and most importantly, a confidence in our political as well as organizational leaders.  When we returned to work after the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns, I noticed more than a bit of re-entry adjustment after an unexpected absence.

Highly dedicated people who had devoted their professional lives to public service were wrestling with feelings of low self-esteem and abandonment. In so many ways, directly and indirectly, employees were told that their years of dedication and contributions to the federal government had very little value. Then in the years that followed, there were the budget stand offs that produced more shutdown threats and continuing resolutions as an ancedote to the intractable political posturing that only further convinced employees of their diminishing status as federal employees.

The price of that cheap leadership is paid daily throughout our federal workforce community.

As we move forward with examining the economic impact of the government shutdown, I think there also needs to be some healthy dialogue about the human impact; and how our ‘leaders’ should be making a real effort toward earning the confidence of those who follow.

Let me here about your experiences and your advice to others.