The shutdown reveals how much our government is automated

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Union members and other federal employees protest the government's closure at Capitol Hill, Washington, on Thursday, January 10, 2019.Photo: Andrew Harnik (Grouvy Today)

If you call the White House right away, thanks to the closure of the government, you will receive an automated message: "We apologize for that, but because of the discontinuation of federal funding, we can not answer your call. Once funding is restored, our activities will resume. The switchboard operators, like so many federal employees, were sent home. And like some, they have been replaced by automated systems running at a minimum.

One of the reasons that some parts of the federal government continue to work is that services have been automated, at least to some extent. Border and maritime inspections have largely continued despite weak staffing of agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Customs and the Border Patrol, due to automated approval systems. You can still file taxes because the IRS automatic filing system is still running to process them.

It is clear that the majority of the work we expect from our government – law enforcement, infrastructure management and national parks, regulation of hazardous materials, especially among these – is not and can not be performed using software. There is a reason why the symbol of government closures tends to be an accumulation of garbage in public parks. But the temporary exile of nearly a million civil servants represents an opportunity to see how the federal government could function with fewer hands free and more automated systems taking over. After all, that's what the current administration hopes to see happen.

Last April, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released its Federal Workforce Priorities Report (FWPR), which indicated that a number of federal jobs could be fully automated. As noted by Nextgov at the time, the FWPR "estimates that automation could reduce the workload of 60% of federal employees by approximately 30% and render almost 5% of all employees completely obsolete. jobs in government. " As the report indicates, "45% of professional activities could immediately be done by machines. "

Such as customs controls in ports. A January 4 report from the JOC states that "customs clearance remains smooth and unhindered for the moment". Amy Magnus, president of the National Association of Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders, told JOC: "This is partly due to automation .We archive the documents properly, so that e-filing is proceeding smoothly and we are receiving CBP and EPA news releases, and if the data were to be rejected, it is difficult to get answers, thankfully we have not yet met Six years ago, during the last extended shutdown, when the customs systems were not yet automated, the situation was different. "We had not received a response from the EPA last time, therefore the cargo subject to EPA approval was not allowed to go inland.It was extremely expensive.

At the IRS, with the tax season approaching, automated processing systems will allow a small staff to continue receiving tax forms. By Vox:

Remaining workers and those recalled without pay will allow the IRS to continue certain short-term operations, particularly automatic functions (and not requiring any worker) and those deemed "necessary for the safety of human life or for the protection of government property ". . "Some examples: processing of electronic declarations, processing of declarations with payments, sending of tax forms, appeals, application of criminal law and investigations, and technical work to ensure the proper functioning of computer systems.

According to Jim Walker, a former Robotics Process Automation Manager at NASA's Shared Services Center, more advanced automated systems are gaining traction across the government. "Twenty-five federal agencies have already put their robotic shadows in the water," wrote Walker, now at UIPath, in a recent article on RPPs in the federal government. "At NASA, their first robot, George Washington, their loving name, helps the agency distribute the funds provided by Congress in hours instead of days. At the General Services Administration, their Truman robot helps the agency perform prenegotiation tasks, which reduces by a few seconds what used to take one hour per task. NASA, he notes, has another 300 RPAs in preparation.

Air traffic controllers appear to be relying more on automated systems since thousands of their colleagues are on leave. In a letter to Trump and Congress calling for an end to the shutdown, the National Air Traffic Controller Association deplores the missing human element in the national aerospace system:

… more than 3,000 aviation security professionals represented by NATCA were sidelined and sent home following the shutdown. This shutdown and the resulting shutdowns quickly eliminate the layers of redundancy and security on which the NAS is built.

Controllers are part of the human components of the NAS and are part of a complex team. This team includes personnel support specialists working in air traffic control facilities to provide tactical, strategic and administrative support for training, quality assurance, traffic management, airspace and procedures, operational automation, military operations and security management system.

These professionals, along with other aviation safety professionals – who, with the air traffic controllers, operate the NAS – work in a system that leaves no room for error … However, during a stop, they are on leave … Leave makes an already complicated job even more difficult by removing a key human component of the SIN. We would not ask a surgeon to perform an operation without the assistance of a support team, and we should not ask the air traffic controllers to continue working without assistance personnel.

The NATC points out that even though things seem to be going at the moment, thanks to the absence of the robust human element, automation and technology actually constitute a rather wobbly system – and it the same goes for all the above. If a problem arises at customs, a person must call CBP and if the closure is still in progress, there may be no one to pick up the phone, in which case nothing will happen. At the IRS, repayments can not go out the door. In the NAS, an error without human hands would be much worse.

(For the record, I called or e-mailed all the agencies mentioned here and they were all offline because of permission or too overwhelmed to answer.)

However, as executive power is already very interested in automation and seeking to redistribute work to algorithms – and closures and the threat of closures becoming a more common element of US policy – it would not be surprising if we soon saw evolution towards more robust autonomous government systems. For the moment, however, it is more of an automaton, surrounded by moving parts that can only maintain the illusion of a true function without the human presence inside.