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Best Places to Work: HQ vs. Regional Offices

By Ed O'Keefe

It's certainly true of journalists and in all types of other professions, but this week's Best Places to Work data definitely confirms that some federal employees much prefer toiling in the field rather than working at headquarters.

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Take EPA for example: two of its regional offices, in San Francisco and Philadelphia, rank among the top ten government "agency subcomponents," or the various divisions and regional offices of a larger agency.

EPA is one of only a few large government agencies that separately report results from its regional offices and at least some subcomponents. NASA reports regional offices, while Veterans Affairs, Commerce and USDA are among those that break out various divisions or bureaus.

At EPA, there's a noticeable difference in the moods out in the field and back at headquarters. For example, consider EPA's Region 3 headquarters in Philadelphia with D.C.-based employees in the Office of Administrator or Office of Research and Development.

Employees in the City of Brotherly Love give their office an 80.8 on the question of whether they feel their skills and talents are used effectively, while the administrator's office gives itself a 78.8 and the researchers a 77.4. As for teamwork, Philadelphia gives itself a 76.2, the administrator's office a 70.7 and the researchers rank themselves with a 69.9.

Small differences yes, but they have a big impact on an office's overall score: Region 3 ranks tenth overall, the administrator's office ranks 80th while R&D comes in at 134 out of 216 agency subcomponents ranked.

"I think the people out here like to get out in the field," said Andy Carlin, a special assistant to Region 3's administrator. "They like to be where the action is, while the people in headquarters are more policy types and idea types and the big picture people." Carlin said several colleagues have left for Washington jobs at some point in their career, when they were more willing to take a more office-oriented position and focus on agency-wide concerns.

But some have done the reverse, including Tracey Clarke, who works in the planning and analysis branch after leaving Washington for the field.

"Headquarters is definitely steering the ship, and so a lot of times we’re just passing on the message from headquarters, but I do think that coming here to the Regional office has been great for my professional development," she said. It's also helped bridge the divide between frontline workers and those back at the main office.

"Maybe headquarters could stand to be a little more field oriented and regional could stand to be a little more policy oriented, especially considering the era of change that’s upon us now," she said.

So why is it good to work in Philadelphia? The environment, literally.

Region 3 moved into a previously-abandoned downtown building a few years back and converted it into a greener location. The office includes a bike room for employees who ride two wheels to work. The renovations efforts even led them to work with Comcast as it built its new LEED-certified office tower across the street.

"Some of those things that are perhaps less obvious I think are very important to the employees," said office spokeswoman Bonnie Smith.

Carlin credits the office's low attrition rate and Clarke, a Philly native, says the agency has a good reputation in the Philadelphia area.

"When I run into people who I grew up with they’re fascinated that I work for EPA in Philadelphia and they’re giving me their resumes trying to get in," she said.

The Eye takes his servings of the the Best Places to Work data with a big grain of salt, because it seems impossible and foolhardy to even suggest comparing the mood at EPA with, say, HUD or the State Department when each government agency has a different purpose. Remember, however, that this the only way to take a wide measure of the federal workforce, that agencies use the results as a recruiting tool and -- most crucially -- the Obama administration plans to consider the results when making future budget decisions.

By Ed O'Keefe  | May 22, 2009; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  Workplace Issues  
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