Planning-Even the Best Made Plans Sometimes Get Shutdown
January 25, 2018 in Vision, Strategy, & Goal-Setting
By Jessica Milloy
This month we have been featuring a series of articles that discuss the value of being strategic in your planning and goal setting processes and the many benefits you’ll reap (as an individual and as an organization) from investing that time and effort. That said, sometimes the best laid plans can’t prevent or predict every curve ball and, sometimes, you find yourself necessarily reacting to events that were not in your plan. Case in point- our recent government shutdown.
For those of you that live inside the beltway, are Federal employees, or government contractors, this has become an all too unfortunate experience akin to Groundhog Day (the movie, not the experience of watching a confused rodent predict the coming of spring). If you are not familiar with the circumstances that contribute to a government shutdown, there are a variety of articles and resources that can orient you to the federal budgetary processes, define the nature of a continuing resolution, and begin to explain the fraught political environment that makes all of this more challenging. However, that is not the purpose of this blog. Instead, we’re going to explore how strategic (albeit quick) planning can come in handy even during a crisis, with the hope that some of these suggestions can reduce the chaos and add structure to even quickly evolving situations. While the three phases of planning that we’ll discuss can apply to any situation, we’re going to use the recent (and perhaps impending) government shutdown to illustrate how this process looks in real life. And, since we work with a substantial portion of the Federal government, this example feels particularly timely and reflects our actual activities in regards to our government clients over the past few weeks.
First, let’s do our homework. No matter the situation or crisis, clearly defining the factors contributing to and driving the need for action or change is paramount and gathering basic information sets the context for planning. In our example of a government shutdown, this means collecting basic information on what a shutdown means to your client- this homework dictates the rest of your planning activities. In the event of a government shutdown, agencies are required to have plans in place outlining the personnel that can and cannot work during the shutdown. These plans are posted (and required to be periodically updated) on the Office of Management and Budget website. As talks begin to swirl about a potential shutdown, that is the moment you should familiarize yourself with your client’s plan and better understand whether their organization, or even business unit, will be impacted.
Now that you’ve done that background research, you can begin planning. As a government contractor, you have three primary phases to consider in relation to a shutdown- Pre-shutdown, During shutdown, and Post-shutdown. Organizing your response and planning activities around these three phases not only helps to articulate discrete goals and activities for each phase, but allows you to delegate and organize the work associated in a more thoughtful manner. Fortunately, in a government shutdown, it is almost impossible to ignore the milestones that mark each of these phases (at least in or around Washington, DC). Let’s walk-through examples of the goals and activities that can help navigate these turbulent times.
Phase 1- Pre-Shutdown
This period can last a while, as discussions about a potential government shutdown begin months or weeks in advance and eventually reach fever-pitch in the days leading up to the deadline for which many government agencies will run out of money. Trying to read the tea-leaves as to how different deals or votes will go isn’t the best use of your time; instead, the goal of this phase is to gather as much information as you can about the impact a shutdown will have to your client, your contract, and your workforce. To support this goal, specific activities to consider include-
- Review your client agency’s shutdown plan to determine whether the client organization and your specific client (e.g., business unit, office, branch) is considered essential (therefore not subjected to a furlough) or non-essential (subjected to a furlough in the event of a shutdown).
- Using that information, contact your client to understand how the furlough will impact his/her job functions, communications, and his/her ability to direct your work or respond to questions. If, for example, your client is considered essential, but will have to cover a variety of other functions and duties, they may not be able to approve or supervise contractor activities.
- Most critically, you must be in contact with the contracting officer or procurement office to get a definitive answer as to whether you will be issued a stop-work order on your contract. There are a variety of factors that will lead to that determination (e.g., whether the contract is fully funded, if the work is required to be onsite at a potentially closed government facility, whether the work requires access to information or systems that won’t be available in the event of a shutdown) and getting answers to this question from the contacting authorities as early as possible will prevent a last-minute scramble when everyone else is also desperate for that information. Start using this information now to determine who, within your workforce, will be unable to work on their existing contracts.
- For those projects that may be able to continue work during a shutdown, gather as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, while being sensitive to the fact that your client might be trying to push through a variety of priorities before they get shutdown. To the extent feasible, try to push through data collection activities, hold key meetings to reach decision points faster, and preview what work you’ll continue during a shutdown, potentially when you are unable to seek guidance and direction from your client. Coming up with a plan of action that your client and team both agree upon will help navigate this break in communication and keep everyone on the same page once the shutdown is over.
- Meanwhile, start evaluating your short and long-term options to address staff that are unable to work during a shutdown. You have a variety of options at your disposal (e.g., reassignment, training, voluntary leave without pay, paid time off, furlough), but each requires consistent application and may come with considerations. Furloughs, for example, must be used in week-long increments for exempt employees and may not be the best solution if you anticipate (hope!) the shutdown won’t last a full week. Because Fair Labor Standards Act and an employee’s exempt/non-exempt status would come into play with some of these options, it is a good idea to run your proposed approach past your legal counsel before you begin implementing any options.
- Finally, communication, communication, communication. Communication is so important at all phases of planning, but it is incredibly important during this first phase. In addition to reaching out to your client and contracting officer for information, you also need to communicate out to your workforce, both for reassurance and preparation. First, let them know you’re planning and that this is a top priority, particularly for those who haven’t experienced a shutdown before. This will reassure them, provide context for what they should expect during this process, and open the door for questions and helpful suggestions. Second, prepare them for the specific activities you will need them to do in advance of the shutdown and activities that they need to do in the event of the shutdown. Also set expectations for communication within this process- how you will share information with them and what information they should share with you, based on conversations they might be having with the client. It goes without saying, but be sure you have up-to-date contact information for everyone that doesn’t rely on government systems or equipment. If possible, set up meetings in advance with critical managers within your organization- that way everyone already has the time set aside to initiate plans and activities, share information, and organize communications as this shutdown rolls forward.
Phase 2- During Shutdown
This phase is self-explanatory and, while agencies have orderly processes to follow to shut down non-essential operations, it will feel like anything but orderly in the first hours and day of a shutdown. You should expect a last-minute flurry of communications, stop-work orders, and plenty of questions from your workforce. The goal of this phase is to implement your communication plans and evaluate and minimize the impact this break in work will have on your workforce and bottom-line. Specific activities to consider include-
- Communicate clearly with employees regarding their ability to work on existing contracts and where they should go for more information or with questions (e.g., their contract manager, supervisor, HR).
- If you are able to reassign staff, convene your supervisors and project managers to review project staffing, both on other billable client work and internal initiatives. Having this staffing conversation pre-planned as one of the first meetings to occur after a shutdown can give people time to brainstorm options and prevent lag and downtime as staff transition into temporary assignments.
- For those that are unable to be reassigned or continue working, begin implementing the option you’ve chosen and reviewed with counsel. It probably also goes without saying that you should document your decisions and communications with employees to ensure everyone was treated fairly and consistently during this process (and so that you can reuse standard memos, emails, and talking points for a future shutdown!).
- Finally, keep communicating with your management team and employees and keep one eye out for official word that you can resume work on your contracts.
Phase 3- Post-Shutdown
This phase feels like it should be a sigh of relief, but the impacts of a shutdown are felt long after everyone returns to work. The goal of this phase is to get everyone back to productivity as soon as possible, while also understanding the impact that the stop-work order has had on your contracts. To that end, activities to consider include-
- Quickly and clearly communicate to your workforce when and how they can return to work, once you have official word that your stop-work order has been lifted.
- Be aware that many clients might be slow to come back online, either transitioning back from performing other essential duties or having to coordinate child or elder care again after a break. As they begin to pick back up with their day-to-day responsibilities, be mindful that communication might lag.
- Quickly and thoughtfully review your existing contracts and projects to determine what impacts the shutdown may have had on deliverables, timelines, period of performance, and funding. If you determine that your contract or work has been impacted, you will need to reach out to your contracting officers as soon as possible to begin reviewing possible options to modify your contract or the scope of your work.
- Start to assess the broader financial impacts that the shutdown may have had on your business. While this is quite possibly the least fun part of cleaning up from a shutdown, this isn’t a task that gets any more fun over time. And, the sooner you realize the impacts, the sooner you can begin to identify adjustments and make changes to your operations.
- Debrief on the process and lessons learned– What went well? What didn’t go well? What will you do the same or differently next time? What things can you do now to prevent the same challenges from occurring again? What memos, communications, or tools can you reuse to speed things along in future shutdowns? Document and store this information and have it ready in your ‘Government Shutdown Toolkit’ for the next time (always assume a next time) this happens.
- Finally, communicate to your managers and workforce how much you appreciated their patience, understanding, and input during this time. Even if it was chaotic and painful, look for opportunities to highlight helpful actions and extra effort from your team- reinforcing that you were all in this terrible situation together.
We usually think about planning as something we do best when we have the luxury of time, but a good plan doesn’t always have to be pretty or extensive to be effective. Government shutdowns, like forces of nature, might be out of our control, but they are opportunities to practice your planning and communication skills. Look for a silver lining- by going through this planning process, your organization learned and became more resilient. And, with another potential shutdown on the horizon, we can all get ready to wash, rinse, and repeat.
About the Author: While FMPer Jess Milloy enjoys strategic planning-outside of the office-she loves traveling (here in Rome near the Pantheon), working out, cooking, and wine. To reach out to the author directly, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.