Life Outside the Beltway

Looking at the residence listings of GovLoop members made me feel a bit of an outsider; so many are from what I would consider the “DC Area.” It made me wonder how valuable GovLoop would be for me, as a Washington Outsider. But then I got to thinking: what, if any, are the real differences? We are all Federal employees, after all, and that should give us some level of commonality. Or does it?

In the early days of my career, the Forest Service’s Washington Office (WO for short) was a vague and distant concept that didn’t really apply much to my day to day routine. After all, what did bureaucrats in stuffy offices and even stuffier suits have to do with my job kayaking through the Alaskan wilderness, educating visitors about nature and wilderness values?

As I grew in my career, this view of course changed. But even then I still held the idea of the WO being bureaucrats who made up policies without giving real thought to the effects they would have on the ground. They were people too far removed from the reality of forest management. They made up studies with goofy, jargony names that didn’t mean anything. They made changes that didn’t need to be made. Oh yeah, and they took most of our budget.

These days, however, I see things differently. I’ve been around long enough to see a couple of good, enjoyable career paths that might lead me to the (gasp!) Washington Office! As my career goals have become more defined, as well as my growing self-identity as a leader within the agency, I realize that people like me eventually end up “on the Beltway” because we have the experience and knowledge to help shape our agency’s policies for the better. Heck, I may even buy a suit one day.

So that’s how my view of DC-ers has evolved. But I wonder: what do they think of someone like me? Am I some tree-hugging bumpkin? Am I the person who gets dirt under her fingernails, doing the grunt work while they do the “important” work? Within the Forest Service, I don’t think so……But I wonder about people in other sectors of government. I don’t know any, so I can’t speculate. So I guess I’ll just have to read your posts to find out.

Perceptions aside, I think we have plenty in common, regardless of where we work or for what agency:

We all represent the Federal Government, not only 9 to 5 but to our friends, families, and neighbors who know where we work. This can be a tough road to hoe, depending on the perception of your agency’s actions in your local area. (Try working for the Forest Service in Alaska).

We are all public servants. Though our missions may be different, we all work on the taxpayer’s dime, and (hopefully!) that means something to us. We are acting on behalf of the entire country, and that brings us great responsibility. The People are trusting us to do the right things to make our country a better place for everyone.

We all know we have a pretty good gig. Working for The Man is pretty secure, especially as our economy tanks and people are losing private-sector jobs left and right. Even the Government is downsizing in some areas, but even so we are still guaranteed a transfer if possible and worst case, a nice severance package. We rest assured knowing that there is no way we can walk into work tomorrow and be handed a pink slip. We know we’ll get our paychecks, paid annual and sick leave, and retirement (such as it may be).

We have an opportunity to serve as real leaders for our country. While not all Federal Employees think about this, those of us who do take it seriously. Whether our goal is to lead in the Capitol, in our agencies, or in our communities, we recognize that we are in a position to help effect change in our society.

So while it may seem that we come from different planets, at the core of it all we share the same foundations.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject. What are your perceptions of the inside/outside the beltway divide? Or does it really exist?

Let the posting begin!

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I agree. I think it would serve us all well to see the other side of the equation. Have DC people rotate to the field. And vice-versa. In my opinion, if you have never been on the other side of the equation, you really don’t understand the other perspective.

One of the neat things about technology is that it has the ability to tap into all the wisdom in the field. Instead of DC HQ creating and shipping out a new policy, why don’t we use new tools like wikis and TSA’s idea factory to get the best ideas from the masses.

Isiah Jones

Agreed. I think it’d be cool and actually atract more of the next generation if they had paid rotations during the first few years of their Federal Work experience. I think real leaders have been around and know their people well, have forged many bonds in and out of the work place with many of the people they eventually lead. That experience with the right amount of education, humility and inclusive personality should allow you to go anywhere and do anything to make a positive difference. You’ll have the respect of the people in the field as you help influence new and hopefully constantly improving policies and practices. Great post. We need more people in the world highlighting what we have in common and how we can use that to bridge the gaps of our differences.

Kitty Wooley

What an interesting discussion! Here is my two cents.
I spent the first couple of years as a Fed based in San Francisco at 50 U.N. Plaza and traveling half-time in AZ, NV, and CA. Way before that, since my Dad was stationed at Elmendorf AFB at the time, I started school in Alaska. By the time I had graduated from high school, I had lived in AK, TX, CA, ND, and CO at least once. How does this relate to the Beltway question? I’ve learned that I can choose to feel like an outsider at any time, and that, in most cases, other people are not trying to do it to me. On the other hand, being a regional employee on conference calls with headquarters employees taught me that an insider mentality can creep in if those who are based in DC (which now includes me) aren’t careful. You wouldn’t believe how many insider jokes were not explained to we who were at the San Francisco end of the phone, how many times no one said goodbye, or weren’t concerned about sound quality, or hadn’t sent the documents ahead of time, and in general were not mindful of the presence of colleagues at a distance. A field rotation is valuable, but it might be enough for most employees if they were to imagine life in the others’ shoes and then communicate with those people, finding out what works and doesn’t work about the long-distance relationship and then deciding to care about it. As much as I love technology, I think the real key is relationships of varying strengths, grounded in respect.