The recent set of snowstorms here in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area made many headlines. It’s not often that federal government offices shuts down at all, let alone for four days straight. Newspapers were full of reports on the cost of the storm including this one: $100M a day in lost productivity because federal workers like me could not get to work. Hmmph. Call me skeptical.
As someone who survived the Snowpocalype (Dec 19-20, 2009) and then Snowmageddon (Feb 5-6, 2010) and another eight inches (Snowmageddon Part Two) that ended on Wednesday, I can report first hand that, yes, we did get a lot of snow. By my count, my neighborhood received 27 inches from Snowmageddon, Part One. Add in the eight inches and that is nearly a yard of snow. Now there was some time between the two latest storms to attempt a recovery, but we never quite got there before part two arrived. Snowplows had nearly (but not quite) finished clearing the roads from the first storm when the second hit.
Clearing the road in my neighborhood did not mean getting the road down to bare pavement. It means your road becomes a teeth-rattling washboard where two cars can barely pass each other. Driving down my road is a slow process requiring lots of caution, good shock absorbers and plenty of clearance between your car and the road. There are a dozen feet between the lane where it was plowed and my driveway. To get our cars out at all, in addition to shoveling my driveway, I had to shovel a dozen feet into the street.
Yesterday, the major arteries were at least back to bare pavement. Yet, like with the Snowpocalypse in December, lanes frequently narrowed or disappeared altogether. Even if federal buildings and parking lots had been cleared, it would have been gridlock for federal workers to try to drive to work because so many lanes had disappeared. Taking the metro was out for most as well because the outdoor tracks were still being cleared of snow.
If it really costs $100M a day in lost productivity when the government closes, you would think taxpayers might not mind chipping in $50M or so a year in order for DC, Maryland and Virginia to have more snowplows and drivers available. This way commerce could resume a lot more quickly than it did. Unfortunately, Congress is pennywise and pound-foolish, and with so many overlapping jurisdictions, making it work is pretty much impossible. So taxpayers pay for it in federal closures that are sometimes simply a result of neighboring states like mine being niggardly about paying for promptly plowed roads.
What the average American may not realize is that just because the government is closed does not mean it is really that closed. Congress was in session, at least for part of it. The White House was busy doing things as well. Social security checks went out as usual. Homeland security kept running. In short, news stories gave the incorrect impression that the whole government was shut down, at least in the D.C. area. In fact about the only thing that was working was the government, mostly state and local governments pushing snow out of the way and providing emergency services. In some ways, the federal government had to “close” so state and local governments could do their jobs. As for the federal government, except for emergency personnel, offices were closed. Maybe the State Department could not process visas for a few days, but it is likely that some of their other offices away from Washington took up their slack. In general, Washington may seem dysfunctional and politically it is often gridlock. But we have all sorts of backup and contingency plans that the most essential parts of government will keep chugging away no matter what the weather.
It is true we civil servants in the area stayed home because basically we were landlocked. So, incidentally, was virtually everyone else. Some of us did kick back and watch HBO on your tax dollars. Most of us had more pedestrian things to deal with, like simply shoveling our long walks and driveways or fretting over the volume of snow on our roofs and wondering if it would cause them to collapse. We also waited for snowplows that were loathe to arrive, tried to figure out ways to keep our kids from driving us crazy and hoped our power would not go out. For hundreds of thousands of us, the power did go out. For the rest of us, we had to hope we had stashed enough provisions to ride the storm out. In short, we weren’t necessarily being lazy, we were overcome by events beyond our control.
As for the $100M in lost productivity, I really question that figure. One thing the storm demonstrated to me is that I could telecommute nearly as effectively as if I were in the office. So I did! I did not work full time during those days; because of the snowstorm, I had other things I had to do. Nevertheless, I did work part-time even though the Office of Personnel Management excused us from working altogether. Maybe I got lucky but I had no problems telecommuting. The telecommuting infrastructure worked: the high speed internet, the VPN, the access to internal file servers that I needed, the email system, the whole shebang performed flawlessly.
Moreover, I was hardly the only federal telecommuter. All the other members of my team were also spending significant parts of their snow days working. If I had to guess, most were working half to full time. They did so because they felt the professional responsibility to keep things moving. Federal employees have deadlines that must be met as well just like the private sector. In my case, I had an executive steering committee coming at me like a freight train in two weeks. My schedule did not allow for a four-day snow holiday. So I kept plugging away at home. We also had a couple of servers with issues to deal with during the storm, but we were able to fix them working remotely. On Thursday, I also attended a two and a half hour conference call from home. Most of us working in this information age can work anywhere there is electricity and high speed internet. Yes, it is convenient to come together daily in a shared office setting, but it is not essential. When you are working from home, you are still working even if the office is “closed”.
Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management’s policies for snow days are still 20th century oriented. They should be updated. If the telework infrastructure is as robust as it was while the government was “closed”, the policy should be to simply require employees to work from home, like I did. Granted, the people who maintain the telework infrastructure may not be able to fix certain problems if they cannot get to the office. Moreover, if everyone is working from home at the same time, it might overtax the network. It appears though that most technical issues can be addressed remotely. It seems like everyone with a white collar job has an employer furnished laptop and high-speed internet at home these days. All we need is a phone and a desk and we are at work. There is also the advantage of having no commute whatsoever.
If you are inclined to think that federal civil servants are lazy and pampered SOBs, think again. It is true that we may get more holidays than you get, but most of us are not lazy, spend our days at the water coolers, or take two-hour lunch breaks. Most of us are very much vested in our work. It gives a lot of meaning to our lives. I was glad to work from home because I felt useful and I had no lack of work. I just hope next time we will have policies that are more realistic in place. In addition, I hope in the future that the public relations folk at the Office of Personnel Management paint a more realistic portrayal of what “shutting down” the government actually means. It does not mean what you think.