Harvard Kennedy School experts provide insight into the wider meanings and implications of the shutdown as it relates to public service, public leadership, economic impacts, and governance challenges both in the United States and around the world.
Mark Gearan, Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School
“In today’s shutdown environment, I continue to think about young people who have the spark to serve our country in the military, national, or public service.
For the past year, I’ve served as vice chair of The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service and have traveled extensively to hear from Americans about what it means to serve their country. As I traveled to Washington, D.C., this week for the release of the commission’s interim report, the irony was not lost on me that we were focusing on the importance of public service during a government shutdown, with 800,000 federal employees on furlough or working without pay.
In our report, we define service as a personal commitment of time, energy, and talent to a mission that contributes to the public good by protecting the nation and its citizens, strengthening communities, or promoting the general social welfare. Americans value service and are willing to consider a variety of options to encourage or require service of all citizens.
Our work at the Institute of Politics works towards exactly this. I hope that every student who spends time at the IOP—whether they attend a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum event, engage in a study group, or participate in a Director’s Internship—walks away inspired for a career in politics and public service. Ultimately, we need to continue to break down barriers for those who want to serve and ensure that the shutdown does not dissuade individuals from listening to that spark within themselves and answer the call to serve.”
Wendy Sherman, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Director of the Center for Public Leadership
“The U.S. federal government shutdown is symptomatic of the lack of effective public leadership, not only in the United States but around the world. Whether the U.S. shutdown, the seeming unsolvable Brexit puzzle in the United Kingdom, the failing effort of reform in France, or the struggle for change in any of the autocratically governed countries, the effectiveness of democratic leadership is being challenged and eroded.
Citizens, facing uncertainty and anxiety from rapid social change, technology and trade, too often turn to orthodoxy and autocracy in exchange for seeming certainty. Our leaders seem to be focused on party over country, short-termism over long-term gain, and power over the day-to-day needs of citizens. The U.S. midterm elections brought some hope for a return to constitutional checks and balances in our system, but the suffering now faced by 800,000 people without paychecks and the downstream costs to all of us, require better public leadership, urgent action, and change.”
Linda Bilmes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy
“The absence of government activity has already cut into the pocketbooks of hundreds of thousands of government employees and contractors who rely on a federal paycheck. Aside from the direct costs, there are hidden costs of a shutdown of this magnitude.
The White House Council of Economic Advisors reports that the current shutdown is lowering overall quarterly economic growth by 0.13 percentage points per week. However, there is a downstream impact on regional economies. Places that have a high percentage of federal employees and contractors (like northern Virginia and Maryland) suffer disproportionately. This time around, rural states like Montana, Maine, and Alaska are especially hurt by the shuttering of the entire departments of Agriculture and the Interior. States derive 30 percent of their revenues from federal aid and grants. Yet local jurisdictions still have to keep schools and programs open even if the federal government has shut off the flow of funds. This means that local taxpayers will begin to see service cuts and may wind up paying more to close the gap.
There is also a direct hit to federal contractors who outnumber federal employees by 2:1. In today's "blended workforce," private contractors work on virtually every government activity. During a shutdown, they are not allowed to access government space, use federal IT systems, or even to work remotely. For small businesses, the loss of billing revenue threatens payroll, and may jeopardize their access to bank credit and relations with suppliers and vendors.
Another cost to the broader business community is the interruption in basic economic data—which the federal government normally compiles on a regular basis. The cancellation of government reports on manufacturing sales, retail sales, residential construction, and other vital information will complicate planning efforts for businesses across the country.
The shutdown will cost all taxpayers more in the long run, because the government will need to reorganize complex projects and to restore vital, normal functions. For example, the 42,000-person Coast Guard has been working without pay for the past month to carry out essential operations, such as search-and-rescue efforts. But it has delayed regular inspections. The agency will need extra funding in order to catch-up when the government re-opens.
The country has had 22 shutdowns since the failed budget reforms of 1974. Closing parts of the government is a crude and ineffective way to settle budget disputes, and is demoralizing to the civil service. It is time to fix the budget process by strengthening budget committees, adopting cost accounting techniques, aligning federal and state budget cycles and setting up platforms for legislators to consider all revenues and expenditures at the same time. Until we tackle this underlying budget dysfunction, the United States will continue to inflict economic harm on ourselves through periodic shutdowns.”
Barbara Kellerman, James McGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership
“In politics, when things go wrong, we naturally want to blame those at the top. We blame leaders for our misfortunes—and for their wrongheadedness, their misguidedness, their cluelessness. So, in the case of the federal government shutdown, depending on one’s point of view, we either fault President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and/or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But what if we took just a bit more time and trouble to see leadership for what it really is? Leadership is a relationship. Leadership is a relationship that requires at least two people: one leader and one follower. Which is why it is as impossible as it is illogical to isolate the one from the other, to blame our leaders entirely for what has gone wrong while exonerating ourselves— American citizens, the followers—entirely.
In the case of the government shutdown, who are the followers? To keep it simple, I’ll put them into just two groups: first, the public at large; and second, the approximately 800,000 government workers who have been directly and dramatically affected, who have been furloughed or shown up at work but not been paid.
Which raises the question of how these two groups have responded to the longest government shutdown in American history. The answer? By and large they, we, have done nothing. We, the people, have played the part of bystanders, for the most part, while federal employees have been forced into the role of pawns in a larger game by no choice of their own. Only in the last few days are we starting to hear steadier drumbeats of protest—from, for example, the FBI Agents Association, the Coast Guard Commandant, and Kentucky union leaders representing prison workers—but the impact of these isolated instances so far has been low. Put simply, followers, even those who have been treated unfairly, have, generally speaking, accepted the hand they have been dealt without protest and largely without challenging their leaders.
While the shutdown provides our country with a “teachable moment” on the need for good and effective public leadership, the current situation also teaches us about the importance of active and engaged citizenship. Our leaders are only as good as we demand them to be, and we must engage strenuously, no matter our station, when confronted with a complete failure to lead.”