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Location, Location, Location: Working in Headquarters vs. Field Offices

By Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job”; speaker on career issues; Twitter: @Lilymwhiteman

What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of working in federal headquarters offices located in the Washington D.C. area vs. working in federal field offices located throughout the U.S.? This question is answered by the two tables below.

 TABLE #1: WORKING IN HEADQUARTERS 
 Job Characteristic   Potential Advantages  Potential Disadvantages
Mission: Headquarters offices design and develop programs, policies and legally-binding regulations; monitor implementation and enforcement by field offices; help Congress hammer out legislation; respond to Congress’s oversight activities; manage agency budgets; issue grants; interact with the national press, and conduct outreach/education activities. 
  • Decisions made in headquarters influence the health and welfare of huge numbers of people (sometimes with life/death consequences), the fate of large sums of tax dollars and the future of precious natural and cultural resources. Many headquarters staffers find it particularly gratifying to contribute to decisions that have such potentially important consequences and wide reach.

 

  • 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.

 

  • Because of the potentially grand ramifications of headquarters decisions and 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.

 

  • In many cases, headquarters employees have only limited one-on-one contact with the people, places and things that are impacted by their activities, and so they may feel like they operate in a bubble.

 

Office Atmosphere
  • Headquarters jobs may offer opportunities to mingle and work with dynamic staffers from non-profits, think-tanks, various government organizations and other types of stakeholder groups—opportunities that may yield social and/or professional opportunities.

 

  • Headquarters staffers are ideally located to attend important and informative conferences, lectures and trainings that are frequently held in Washington D.C.

 

 

  • Washington D.C. tends to attract ultra-motivated go-getters who may be vulnerable to “Potomac Fever”—a potentially contagious syndrome that sometimes promotes competitive rather than collegial working environments.

 

  • Some high-level headquarters positions require long working hours. (Nevertheless, most headquarters staffers are usually able to stick to 40-hour work weeks.)

 

  • Political appointees have relatively little job stability and are closely watched by the media and Congress. Therefore, they are often personally stressed and their officers may be high-pressure environments.
Promotion Potential 

 

 

  • Headquarters offices generally employ larger numbers of political appointees than do field offices. In addition, some headquarters offices liaison directly with Congressional staffs.   Because of the resulting potential proximity of headquarters staffers to political appointees and Congressional staffers, headquarters staffers generally have more opportunities to learn about the inners workings of the highest levels of government from first-hand experience than do field employees.

 

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

 

  • Headquarters offices are relatively large, frequently employ relatively large numbers of senior-level professionals, and are clustered geographically together in the D.C. area. Therefore, headquarters staffers may have more opportunities to rise into senior-level positions and/or lateral into other choice jobs in their own or other agencies than do field staffers. They may also have more opportunities to leapfrog into positions in associations, non-profits and lobbying organizations.

 

 

  • Not all headquarters jobs are glamorous and address attention-grabbing, controversial issues. Some headquarters jobs are located in backwater offices that—though important—may receive relatively little public attention. Operating in a large bureaucracy, staffers in such offices may feel like “a little fish in a big pond.”

 

 

 

 

 TABLE #2: WORKING IN FIELD/ REGIONAL OFFICES 
 Job Characteristic   Potential Advantages  Potential Disadvantages
Mission: Field offices generally implement and enforce programs, policies and legally-binding regulations that are issued by headquarters offices; provide feedback to headquarters offices about implementation/enforcement; and liaison with the local/regional press.Responsibilities in field offices may, among other things, involve conducting inspection and monitoring activities; levying fines; directing research programs; issuing permits; managing natural resources; conducting outreach and education activities, and trying legal cases.

 

 

 

  • In some cases, field staffers may be able to make decisions faster than headquarters staffers because: 1) the activities and crises that they manage often demand quick responses; 2) field staffers generally need fewer approvals to make decisions than do headquarters staffers.

 

A headquarters public affairs supervisor who previously worked in many field offices put it this way: “Field staffers generally don’t have to ask, ‘mother may I?’ before making decisions or talking to the press as often as do headquarters employees.”

 

  • Field staffers generally work “in the trenches” on projects that: 1) involve direct contact with the people and resources that are targeted by their agencies’ activities; and 2) require expert knowledge about the progress and problems involved in completing local projects.
Most field staffers are given only very limited or no opportunities to contribute to the design of national programs, policies and regulations.
  • Office Atmosphere: The atmosphere and culture of each field office is determined by varied factors. These factors include 1) the size, demographics and educational levels of its staff; 2) the office’s level of collegiality and hierarchy; and 3) the area’s prevailing culture, history, politics, geography and recreational opportunities.

 

Therefore, the potential compatibility between a particular field office and a particular fed varies from case to case.

 

  • Because field offices are relatively small, in some cases, they may offer more collegial, more informal, less competitive and less hierarchical working environments than do headquarters offices. READ: less bureaucracy and fewer meetings. This type of atmosphere may be more appealing to some professionals than the high-stress, more stilted atmospheres of many headquarters officers.

 

For example, I know a supervisory GS-15 attorney who recently transferred from a high-pressure managerial job in Washington D.C. to a managerial job in a San Francisco field office. Because she enjoys the relatively calm, California-esque atmosphere of her new office and loves the Bay Area, she is much happier in her field job than she was in her more high-profile headquarters job that involved frequent interactions with top political appointees.

 

  • Field offices tend to be more isolated than headquarters offices and therefore offer fewer opportunities for cross-fertilization with staffers from other governmental and non-governmental organizations and for other intellectual/ social activities that are easily accessed in Washington D.C.

 

 

Promotion Potential
  • Because field offices are relatively small, field staffers may—under some circumstances—form particularly strong professional bonds with high-level managers in their offices and then ride their tailcoats as they move up and throughout government.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Some field offices have only limited numbers of senior-level positions in some occupations. Therefore, depending on the field office and occupation, some feds who work in field offices may have to lateral into different types of jobs or transfer to other field offices or headquarters offices to land senior-level jobs.

 

  • Because field offices are, by definition, geographically and managerially distant from their headquarters offices (which determine agency budgetary priorities) and from Congress (which determines agency budgets), their staffers may have relatively few opportunities to justify their work to Congress and headquarters offices.

 

Therefore, during economically lean times, field offices may be more vulnerable to budget cuts and cost-saving plans that involve consolidating offices than are headquarters offices.

 

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