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.