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How Is the Federal Shutdown Affecting State and Local Tech?

State and local government leaders say that for now some collaborative efforts are facing the potential of individual delays, but the effects are likely not to be noticed by most of the general public.

The federal government shut down three days before Christmas after lawmakers and the president failed to agree on an appropriations bill for the 2019 fiscal year.

Nearly a month later, the shutdown continues. The reason stems from President Trump wanting funding to build a wall on the nation’s southern border. Reasons aside, though, the fact remains that all non-essential federal government operations have ceased, raising the natural question of whether state and local gov tech and innovation work — a portion of which relies on federal collaboration — is being affected.

In conversations with a half dozen state and local government leaders and innovation experts, a consensus emerged that small effects are starting to trickle down to technologists at other levels of government. These effects, however, are likely to go unnoticed by most who work in state houses or city halls, and they are almost certainly not something the general public will be aware of.

Indiana CIO Dewand Neely said that during the first few weeks of the shutdown, the federal government ceasing non-essential operations seemed to have little impact on his office’s work. Recently, however, Neely and his team wanted to make an IP change for a site they’ve collaborated on with the federal government.

This is a small thing, to be sure, basically routine and aimed at bolstering cybersecurity. Neely’s team, however, was reticent to make the changes, knowing that if something were to go wrong, there would be no one available on the federal side to help them troubleshoot the work.

“From our standpoint,” Neely said, “we may slow down some things that require really tight knit coordination with certain folks at the federal level, just as a concern that if we make any changes and things break, we want to make sure we have folks on the other end to help us troubleshoot.”

Stanton Gatewood, the chief information security officer (CISO) for Georgia, said his office has felt the effects of the shutdown as well, albeit in a slightly more tangible way than Neely’s. In recent years, Georgia has emerged as a leader in cybersecurity work at the state government level, building a center for cybersecurity innovation and training.

In his capacity as Georgia’s CISO, Gatewood said he normally speaks and coordinates often with a representative from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, talking to them on the phone weekly. During the shutdown, those phone calls have now stopped, with that representative furloughed and essentially sent home for the duration.

Georgia Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Steve Nichols said that collaborative cybersecurity can be divided into two subsections: immediate operational support such as threat intelligence and real-time support in the event of an emerging incident; and long-term planning where cybersecurity and IT converge together in the service of broader projects.

“In those cases,” Nichols said, “it’s more that everything has slowed down, and we’re seeing one-for-one slips where we’re waiting for assessments or reviews.”

With Georgia set to host the Super Bowl next month, cybersecurity staff are also working more closely with federal government experts than they normally would. Some of those staff members — who are part of the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI — have been deemed essential staff and have not been sent home.

For the most part, the state is prepared for any small lapses and delays.

“When it comes to cybersecurity, we always have contingency plans and continuity of operations plans for our government as well as our programs,” Gatewood said. “If the federal government came back tomorrow or two or three more weeks out, we have planned for contingencies and continuing operations and other things like that.”   

Things are slightly different for public-sector technology work at the local level, where direct collaboration with federal agencies is a bit less prevalent, but some organizations do rely on grants and other monies from the feds. Matthew Arvay, CIO for Phoenix, said that none of his office’s work has been directly stopped or slowed, but there are still impacts.

For example, Arvay and his team are involved with a large regional transit project, part of which involves putting new vehicle locators in as many as 970 city fleet vehicles.

“Within that project,” Arvay said, “we’re supposed to be getting reimbursed for some of these expenditures, and the reimbursement has stopped since the government shutdown.”

The work proceeds, with city hall hoping the reimbursement money will come through eventually.

There is, however, one major effect being felt by technologists at all levels: federal government websites have stopped being updated and, in some cases, are not functioning at all. In fact, 18 days into the shutdown, Pew Research Center wrote a piece titled The data casualties of the federal government shutdown, which notes that the shutdown has “squeezed the daily flood of data from federal agencies down to a trickle, affecting everyone from investors and farmers to researchers and journalists.”

Rachel Bergman, director of the transparency group Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project, said that all websites are unavailable until further notice, and that it’s unclear whether data is still being collected with the intent to restore it when the government eventually resumes full functions.

“From a transparency perspective,” Bergman said, “it’s unclear exactly what’s happening.”

Bergman pointed out that a lack of federal data can have an impact on surprising organizations, including some that operate abroad. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, normally provides climate data to scientists in Britain, but it is not doing so during the shutdown.

All of the state and local government leaders Government Technology spoke with pointed out that the website is not being updated for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), a non-regulatory federal agency that keeps a vulnerability database and publishes advice, standards and best cybersecurity practices. If the government shutdown were to continue, NIST being unavailable could have further ramifications on cybersecurity work throughout the lower levels of government.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed and hoping the shutdown ends quickly,” Arvay said.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.