Agencies hit the 'off' switch on websites

Tuesday - 10/1/2013, 10:55am EDT

Agency websites officially began going "dark" Tuesday as the government entered day one of a federal shutdown.

The Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration sent out guidance to chief financial officers late last week informing agencies that some websites would need to be shut down.

"The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency's activities would not warrant the retention of personnel or the obligation of funds to maintain (or update) the agency's website during such a lapse," said Lisa Schlosser, deputy administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

However, not all websites will be "turned off."

"If maintenance of the website is necessary to avoid significant damage to the execution of authorized or excepted activities (e.g., maintenance of the IRS website may be necessary to allow for tax filings and tax collection, which are activities that continue during an appropriations lapse), then the website should remain operational even if its costs are funded through appropriations that have lapsed."

GSA offered agencies multiple options for alerting the public of their website closures including redirecting agency pages to USA.gov, which will remain live during the shutdown, or sending users to other sites hosted by the agency that remain unaffected by the shutdown. GSA said Joanne McGovern has been deemed essential and can make updates to USA.gov if necessary during the shutdown.

GSA offered the message above for agencies to post on their websites.

As of Tuesday morning, many agency websites had already gone dark, including USDA and NASA. Others, like Energy, Labor, Transportation, and the WhiteHouse, posted messages alerting users that some information on their websites may not be up to date during the shutdown.

Users going to USDA.gov Tuesday morning were greeted by this message.

Schlosser said agency websites that remain active during the shutdown should be maintained at the "lowest possible level."

"For example, in the IRS case above, the IRS website would remain active, but the entire Treasury Department website would not, absent a separate justification or a determination that the two sites cannot not feasibly be operated separately," Schlosser wrote in the memo obtained by Federal News Radio.

In an email to agency Web managers, GSA's Sarah Crane, director of USA.gov, warned that shutting down agency websites using certain approaches "could have serious search engine optimization implications."

Beyond websites, OMB also reminded agencies of their responsibilities for social media sites and cybersecurity of IT systems.

"Agencies should work closely with their general counsel offices (OGC) to evaluate all contracts that fund the IT platforms they operate — including government-owned and operated, contractor-owned and operated, or cloud solutions — to determine whether activities involving those platforms may, pursuant to the Antideficiency Act, continue, or whether they must cease during a lapse in appropriations," Schlosser wrote.

OMB also told agencies to consult with general counsel to ensure third-party social media sites do not incur any costs during the shutdown. Once that's been determined, Schlosser said, "the agency should exercise its judgment in determining whether it nevertheless would be prudent for the agency — as a policy/programmatic matter — to turn off the resource, or disable features associated with it, during a lapse period."

As of Tuesday, agencies had already begun alerting users that their social media accounts wouldn't be active during the shutdown.

When an agency takes any system offline during the shutdown, Schlosser said agencies should ensure all data and information are appropriately safeguarded to avoid any long-term disruptions.

OMB issued more detailed contingency guidance Sept. 17 where it addressed other IT issues such as what systems should be kept live and what to do with government furnished mobile devices.

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