Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Field offices: Less bureaucracy, but vulnerable to cuts

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This column summarizes the relative advantages and disadvantages of working in agency field offices.

The mission of field offices usually is to implement and enforce programs, policies and regulations issued by headquarters; provide feedback and progress reports to headquarters on these activities; and work with local media. These roles may require, among other things, trying legal cases, conducting inspection and monitoring activities, running research programs, issuing permits and conducting outreach activities.

Field employees often have authority to make decisions faster than headquarters employees because the activities they manage often demand quick responses. As one headquarters media officer who has extensive field experience put it: “Field employees don’t have to ask, ‘Mother, may I?’ before making decisions or talking to the press as often as do headquarters employees.”

He noted that interactions between field employees and local reporters usually involve relatively frequent contact, and require thorough knowledge of on-the-ground projects — conditions that tend to foster relatively strong professional relationships. By contrast, interactions between headquarters employees and individual national reporters tend to be less frequent and sometimes more superficial, and are more likely to involve broad policy issues than project particulars.

Also, field employees generally work “in the trenches” on projects that involve direct contact with people and resources that are affected by their programs. They must engage in more in-depth analyses and management of local projects instead of in the abstract policy issues that tend to occupy headquarters employees.

Because field offices are relatively small, they sometimes are more collegial, less competitive and less hierarchical than headquarters offices. The preferences of a fed for a headquarters vs. field position would likely hinge on his career options, goals, personality and personal biases.

For example, I know a supervisory GS-15 attorney who transferred to a supervisory job in a San Francisco field office after working in many high-powered positions in Washington, where she had often contributed to national rule-making. Because she enjoys her new office’s relatively calm atmosphere and loves the Bay Area, she is happier in her field job than she was in her headquarters jobs.

But field offices tend to be more isolated than headquarters offices and therefore offer fewer opportunities for contact with employees from other organizations.

Because field offices are usually small with few management layers, but are often compelled to make rapid decisions, entry-level and midlevel feds may receive more responsibilities and opportunities to gain leadership experience than headquarters-based feds with comparable experience.

Also, because field staffers work in relatively small offices, they sometimes form strong professional bonds with high-level managers; this may help them as they move up through government.

But the flip side is that some field offices have limited senior-level positions for some occupations. Therefore, some field feds may have to make lateral moves into different types of jobs or transfer to other field or headquarters offices to advance.

Because field offices are geographically and managerially distant from headquarters offices and Congress — and thus may have relatively few opportunities to justify their work to Congress and headquarters — they may be more vulnerable to cutbacks and cost-saving plans involving consolidations of separate field offices than are headquarters offices.

The highs and lows of a headquarters job

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As the saying goes: “location, location, location.” So what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of working in an agency headquarters office in Washington vs. a field office elsewhere in the U.S.? In this column, I’ll describe the relative advantages and disadvantages of working in a Washington-area headquarters office.

Some caveats: Conditions vary from office to office. And impressions and perspectives about any particular office would likely differ among staff members, depending on their personal preferences and individual circumstances.

The mission of headquarters offices is to design and develop programs, policies and legally binding regulations; monitor implementation and enforcement by field offices; help Congress hammer out legislation; respond to Congress’ oversight activities; manage agency budgets; issue grants; interact with the national press; and conduct outreach and education activities.

Decisions made in headquarters offices frequently influence the health and welfare of huge numbers of people (sometimes with life-or-death consequences), the fate of large sums of tax dollars and the future of precious natural and man-made resources.

Because headquarters decisions generally yield such potentially important consequences and have such wide reach, many headquarters staffers receive a great deal of gratification from contributing to them.

Political junkies and policy wonks who revel in the abstractions and details of programmatic alternatives may take special joy in working in the power vortexes of headquarters offices.
However, because of the potential importance of headquarters decisions and because headquarters officials are often targeted by the watchful eyes of the White House, Congress and the national press, headquarters officials tend to act cautiously and slowly. Therefore, many layers of approval are often needed before headquarters staff may take actions. Read: bureaucracy and frequent meetings.

Further, headquarters employees generally only have limited one-on-one contact with the people, places and things affected by their activities, and may sometimes feel as if they are operating in a bubble.

The atmosphere of headquarters offices also has advantages and disadvantages.

Headquarters staffers are ideally located to attend important and informative conferences, lectures and training. Their jobs may offer opportunities to mingle and work with dynamic staffers from nonprofits, think tanks, various government organizations and other types of stakeholder groups. Such opportunities may yield social and professional opportunities.

On the downside, headquarters offices tend to attract ultramotivated go-getters who may be vulnerable to “Potomac Fever” — a potentially contagious syndrome that, when left unchecked, may promote competitive rather than collegial working environments.

Because political appointees have relatively little job stability and are closely watched, they often feel personal stress that negatively influences the atmosphere of their offices, and their staffers may work under high-pressure, stressful conditions.

Some high-level headquarters positions require long working hours, although most headquarters staffers may be able to stick to 40-hour weeks.

Promotion potential is another factor to consider when weighing the advantages and disadvantages of headquarters work.

Because of their potential proximity to political appointees and congressional staffers, headquarters staffers generally have more opportunities to learn about the inner workings of the highest levels of government from firsthand experience than do field employees.

Headquarters staffers who are able to “hitch their wagons” to rising-star executives and political appointees may climb the career ladder faster than feds who have comparable seniority and skills but work for lesser-known field-based managers — unfair though that may be.

And because headquarters offices are relatively large, frequently employ relatively large numbers of senior-level professionals and are clustered geographically together, headquarters staffers usually have more opportunities to rise into senior-level positions or to move laterally into other jobs in their own or other agencies than do field staffers.

But because of the large size of headquarters offices and the potentially busy agendas of managers, headquarters staffers who work in offices that do not address attention-grabbing controversial issues may feel isolated — similar to being “a little fish in a big pond.”