Feds prep for e-gov shutdown

White House: 'Most websites will not continue' during federal shutdown

WASHINGTON -- If the federal government is shut down by a budget impasse Friday night at midnight, the IRS will continue to accept tax returns filed electronically and it will still process refunds, but paper-based returns won't be processed.

Other U.S. government Web sites that offer electronic services unrelated to national security and the protection of life and property likely won't be updated -- and it's possible that some could go offline.

U.S. agencies are now preparing for a shutdown because of the congressional deadlock over the federal budget for the current fiscal year. A shutdown could end up furloughing some 800,000 federal employees, and scores of people who work for federal contractors, according to government officials and analysts.

A big difference between the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 and the one looming this week is the government's increased reliance on online tools for delivering services and seeking feedback.

As for the decision to have the IRS continue collecting taxes that are filed electronically, "We need to be able to collect the money that is owed to the U.S. government," said a senior Obama administration official, speaking with reporters on background Tuesday. "And that's the same process as issuing electronic refunds, so electronic refunds and collection of monies will continue."

But the outlook for other government services delivered electronically is less certain.

"Most websites will not continue, only those websites that are part of these excepted activities would continue to operate," the senior official said. By "excepted activities" he meant essential public-safety-related government services.

But how the various agencies' electronic, automated operations will be affected remains to be seen. Many government websites include automated tools for searches and filling out forms.

For instance, the Small Business Administration would close during a shutdown, but its website, which includes a number of tools to help businesses, would remain operational, an SBA spokesman said.

The SBA site is hosted off-site and is maintained by a contractor who has already been paid, the spokesman said.

Ray Bjorklund, an analyst at Federal Sources, says static websites can keep running until the server crashes. But people who interact with the government via the Web have a higher risk of an interaction going unfulfilled, and the government might take down a particular website to avoid such a scenario, he said.

"Another reason to take down a website would be to make a political point," said Bjorklund.

The budget situation has already been difficult for IT vendors who do business with the government.

Ken Ammon, chief strategy officer at Xceedium, a company that makes IT security systems such as access control appliances, said the government's recent stopgap funding measures have prevented federal employees from buying new products.

Herndon, Va.-based Xceedium counts numerous federal agencies among its customers, and Ammon said, "We have customers that are prohibited from purchasing anything until they get an approved budget."

Deniece Peterson, an analyst at government market research firm Input, said government purchases of new technologies can involve a lengthy process. "This environment certainly does not help facilitate any type of innovation, that's for sure," said Peterson.

As for places like the Smithsonian Institution, the White House said a shutdown would close the popular attraction, but its websites would remain accessible to the public. The Smithsonian's main site, SI.edu, will be updated with information regarding the status of the Smithsonian museums and zoo, according Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian's chief spokeswoman.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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