The Case for Moving Agencies Out of Washington

Smart government and smart politics aren’t the same thing.

Washington is the seat of government, but it is not home to the majority of federal workers. The District of Columbia itself has only 170,000 federal workers. California has almost as many (143,000). Texas is home to 115,000. So, when folks say they want to move agencies out of Washington, what many of them really mean is they want to move agency headquarters functions out of D.C.

Is that a good idea? Absolutely yes. And absolutely not. It depends on why you do it, which agency headquarters are moved, and where they go.

Let's look at some of the reasons why federal agencies might move in the first place, because those drive the selection of agencies to relocate, and where they might go:

  • If the reason is to maintain continuity of government during a crisis, then maybe we should move large chunks of the Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury, Justice and State departments. They could move just about anywhere in the continental United States, but they most likely need to be near major cities with adequate transportation and housing.
  • If the reason is to put agencies where their work is located, then maybe we should move more of Agriculture and Interior to the Midwest and West.
  • If the reason is just to save money, forget about it. The cost of disrupting agencies and moving or separating a lot of people are so great it’s unlikely taxpayers would see any savings in the near future.
  • If connecting agencies to the people they serve is the intent, then it would probably be best to relocate agencies that have the most direct interaction with the people. That means the IRS, the Postal Service, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a few others.
  • If the reason is just to mess with government, then it really doesn’t matter what agencies move or where they go.

Just as there are good reasons to move some agency headquarters, there are some great reasons not to. No one would argue that interagency communications and collaboration are as effective as they should be. Imagine how it would be if those agencies were located all over the country. A radically dispersed government may be less effective and less responsive to the people. Moving Social Security to Dallas or Topeka or Dayton might make it more responsive to the people in one of those cities, but how does that make them any more responsive to the people of Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland or Atlanta? If the intent is to "drain the swamp," do we really think that the lobbyists would not pick up and move to wherever the agencies they want to influence are located?

The disruption that massive relocation of agencies would create makes it more likely that those agencies will be less able to meet their mission requirements. From a continuity of government perspective, it might make it harder for an enemy to wipe out the leadership of most agencies, but it might also pin a target on more cities. While we are on the topic of disasters, what about natural disasters? Would fear of hurricanes and earthquakes prohibit locating any agency headquarters in Florida? Or Texas? Or California? Or New Jersey? Or Louisiana?

I understand the motives of folks who talk about moving government agencies. Sometimes it is for good reasons, sometimes for political reasons. I have some experience in moving government work out of the Washington metro area. When I was HR Director for the Defense Logistics Agency, I relocated headquarters human resources support to Columbus, Ohio, and New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. The move was driven by the difficulty in hiring skilled HR professionals in the Washington area and the high grades that competition for talent created here. It was a good move and I would do it again. It was driven by effectiveness and efficiency, not politics.

The bottom line is that relocating agencies is a big deal. It should be done for valid reasons, and only after extensive analysis of the options and the likely outcomes. And it should not be done by politicians. If there is to be any serious consideration of moving agencies, it should be done by a non-partisan commission. That commission should conduct public hearings, hear from experts who can outline the consequences of options, and deliberate in public, rather than behind closed doors. If that happens, we might find that we should move parts of the government. We might find that it is a bad idea. If we are not willing to make decisions based on good government rather than good politics, let's just leave agencies where they are.

Jeffrey Neal is a senior vice president at ICF, former chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department, and publisher of the blog