Union members and other federal employees protest the government shutdown on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019.
Photo: Andrew Harnik (AP)

If you call the White House right now, thanks to the government shutdown, you’ll be treated to an automated message: “We apologize but due to the lapse in federal funding, we are unable to take your call. Once funding has been restored, our operations will resume.” The switchboard operators, like so many federal employees, have been sent home. And like some, they’ve been replaced by minimally functioning automated systems.

One of the reasons that parts of the federal government continue to work at all is because services have been automated, at least to some extent. Shipping and border inspection have largely continued apace despite thinned staff at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Customs and Border Patrol, due to automated approval systems. You can still file taxes because the IRS’s automatic filing system is still running to process them.

Clearly, the majority of work that we expect our government to do—law enforcement, taking care of infrastructure and national parks, regulating hazardous materials, notably among them—is not and cannot be done by software. There’s a reason the symbol for government shutdowns tends to be trash piling high at public parks. But the temporary exile of nearly a million government workers offers an opportunity to look at how the federal government might function with fewer hands on deck, and more automated systems picking up the slack. Which, after all, is what the current administration is hoping to see happen.

In April last year, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released its Federal Workforce Priorities Report (FWPR), which found that a number of federal jobs could be automated entirely. As Nextgov reported at the time, the FWPR “estimates automation could cut workloads for 60 percent of federal employees by about 30 percent and render nearly 5 percent of government jobs completely obsolete.” As the report states, “45% of work activities could immediately be done by machines.”

Like, for example, customs checks at ports. A January 4 report from JOC relays that “customs clearance remains smooth and unimpeded for now.” Amy Magnus, president of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America, told JOC, “Some of this is because of automation. We’re filing the paperwork properly, so the electronic filing goes through smoothly and we’re receiving releases from CBP and EPA. If the data were to be rejected, then it becomes a challenge to get answers. Luckily we haven’t run into a situation yet.” Six years ago, during the last extended shutdown when the customs systems weren’t automated yet, it was a different story. “We weren’t getting any responses from EPA the last time, so cargo that was subject to EPA approval wasn’t allowed to proceed inland. It was extremely costly.”

At the IRS, with tax season looming, automated processing systems will allow a small staff to continue to receive tax forms. Per Vox:

The remaining workers and those called back without pay will let the IRS continue some operations in the short term, particularly functions that are automatic (and require limited to no workers) and those deemed “necessary for the safety of human life or protection of government property.” Some examples: processing electronic returns, processing returns with payments, mailing tax forms, appeals, criminal law enforcement and investigations, and technical work to make sure computer systems remain up and running.

According to Jim Walker, the former Robotic Process Automation lead at NASA Shared Services Center, more advanced automated systems are on the rise across government. “Twenty-five federal agencies have already put their robotic toes in the water,” Walker, now at UIPath, writes. “At NASA, their first robot, affectionately named George Washington, is helping the agency distribute funds provided by Congress in hours instead of days. At the General Services Administration, their robot Truman is supporting the agency with pre-negotiation tasks, reducing to seconds what had previously taken an hour per task.” NASA, he notes, has 300 more RPAs in the pipeline.

Air traffic controllers are apparently leaning more heavily on automated systems since thousands of their colleagues have been furloughed, too. In a letter sent to Trump and to Congress calling for an end to the shutdown, the National Air Traffic Controller Association laments the missing human element from the National Aerospace System:

... over 3,000 NATCA- represented aviation safety professionals have been furloughed and sent home as a result of the shutdown. This shutdown and the resulting furloughs are rapidly eliminating the layers of redundancy and safety on which the NAS is built.

Controllers are among the human components of the NAS and are part of a complex team. That team includes staff support specialists who work at air traffic control facilities to provide tactical, strategic, and administrative support of training, quality assurance, traffic management, airspace and procedures, operational automation, military operations, and safety management system.

These and other aviation safety professionals - who along with air traffic controllers operate the NAS - work in a system that has no room for error… However, during a shutdown, they are furloughed… The furloughs make an already complicated job even more difficult by removing a key human component from the NAS. We wouldn’t ask a surgeon to perform an operation without the assistance of a support team, and we shouldn’t be asking air traffic controllers to continue working without support staff.

NATC makes the key point that even if things appear okay for now, thanks to missing the robust human element, the automation and technology actually amounts for a rather rickety system—and the same goes for all of the above. If there’s a snag at customs someone’s going to have to call CBP, and if the shutdown’s still on, there may be no one there to pick up the phone, in which case nothing’s going to happen. At the IRS, refunds may not make it out the door. In the NAS, a mistake absent human hands would be much worse.

(For the record, I called or emailed every agency mentioned here and they were all either offline due to the furlough or too overwhelmed to respond.)

Yet with the executive branch already keenly interested in automation, and aiming to redistribute work to the algorithms—and shutdowns and the threat of shutdowns already becoming a more regular fixture of American politics—it would not be surprising in the least if we soon saw genuine movement towards more robust autonomous government systems. For now, though, it’s more like an automaton—surrounded by moving parts that can only maintain the illusion of genuine function without the human inside for so long.