The highs and lows of a headquarters job


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.”


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  1. As a federal employee who has done both the Washington D.C. and state/field work, it’s definatley two different worlds. I think it’s a big challenge for DC to get the state/field perspective, and visa versa. The real work happens in the states. If you really want to work with people and apply federal programs and services, work in a state. If you want the ability to apply your work on a bigger level, go to DC.

    My wish is that DC wouldn’t get so caught up in itself and remember that the work gets applied at a state/field level, and that the states/field would get a better understanding and appreciation of what goes into the process in DC.

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