They Shut Down, We Step Up

by eroberts@srainternational.org on Friday, January 11, 2019

Authored by Evan Roberts
Executive Director
SRAI


A government shutdown is upon us (today ties it with the longest shutdown in U.S. history), with the potential to negatively impact our business operations and the day to day lives of our research faculty and their quest for knowledge and understanding. This is the 21st shutdown of government operations in the history of the United States, and the 4th time it has occurred this decade. This article offers somewhat obvious, but often neglected, tips for approaching shutdowns, as well as approaches that help to mitigate the negative impact while legislators resolve the federal budget dispute.

  • Don’t panic: The average time for a government shutdown is 6.5 days, with more than half lasting five days or less. We are well past the average duration, but still months shy of serious consequences for our business operations. Additionally, this shutdown is impacting about 25% of federal services, and not all federal funding agencies have closed. All current funding announcements remain open and can be submitted (though not reviewed) on the originally posted deadline date. Finally, existing awards have already been appropriated and can be spent according to the project plans. A leader’s ability to remain calm and confident during high-stress times is directly correlated with a team’s performance and morale. The following steps will help anchor teams and provide clarity of action while reducing risk and errors.
  • Develop a plan: While the impact from most government shutdowns may not be significant (historically), a little planning can help mitigate risks, keep the team confident and clear on their responsibilities, and allow work to continue with minimal interruption to normal business operations. The government has a plan, found here, and is a good starting point for developing your plan of action. There should be 3 stages to the plan to help clarify roles, responsibilities, policies, and procedures during the preparation phase (communicating with federal sponsors and program officers), during the shutdown (submissions, creating accounts, allocating expenses, and reporting), and once the government opens for business (following up on outstanding items, reconciling advanced accounts established during the shutdown, and general communication with program officers and grant management specialists, to name a few). Because government shutdowns are not common events, many of us won’t have well-developed plans in place. This presents the opportunity for current and emerging leaders to leverage the experiences gained today for future improvements for the next time.
  • Communicate early and often: Communication strategies often work best when paired with and aligned to the overall strategic plan. In this case, communications to the research community and sponsors should mirror the 3 phases stated above, with 3 layers of communication: to central offices, departments and faculty, and with sponsors. Central support groups need to be educated and trained on the institutional plan and made ready to deal with a high volume of inquiries from stakeholders. Departments and faculty need to understand what remains constant (the majority of projects will not be significantly impacted given the historical duration of shutdowns) and in which specific cases a unique management plan will be needed (i.e. federal grants and contracts nearing expiration, NCEs requiring prior authorizations, etc…). Finally, since the federal offices will close their doors and be non-responsive to almost all inquiries, it is best to get any critical issues, concerns, and guidance resolved with POs and GMSs in advance. During the shutdown, provide updates, create communication channels for stakeholders to air concerns and offer feedback, and regularly update websites with critical information. At the end of the shutdown, aggregate outstanding actions submitted during the shutdown that require follow-up, and be prepared to get at the front of the line for new inquiries. Federal employees are going to be inundated with requests and overwhelmed by the volume of work to which they are returning. Everything we can do to make that job easier will expedite requests and build good will with the sponsors.
  • When in doubt, ask for help: We are not alone. Our Society has a treasure trove of experience and expertise within its ranks; individuals dedicated to advancing our field and generous with their time are spread throughout the country, all you need do is ask. My experience with these thought-leaders is that they will support you with guidance, point you in the right direction when they aren’t specialists in an area, and will join you in the journey for clarity and understanding. So don’t be shy!

While government shutdowns are not the new norm, increasing duration and frequency of these shutdowns compel research managers and administrators to remain calm and focused, think strategically, communicate effectively, and reach out to their mentors and peers for insights. These events are survivable so long as we stick together and step up to meet the challenges of the times.