Can we move Washington, D.C. to Omaha? The arguments for and against federal government relocation
Proposals to consider new homes for government agencies have reignited a longstanding debate.
Washington, DC is the seat of government, but it is not home to the majority of federal workers. Just 280,000 full-time permanent non-seasonal Executive Branch employees — out of 1.9 million overall — work in DC. California (143,000) and Texas (115,000) have almost as many. In fact, when we look at the top ten cities for federal employment, only three of the top ten are in the DC area. Others include New York, Atlanta, San Diego, Chicago and San Antonio.
When Does Relocation Make Sense? Start With “Why”
So when folks say they want to move agencies out of DC, what many of them really mean is that they want to move agency headquarters functions out of DC. Is that a good idea? The answer could easily be “absolutely” or “absolutely not” — it all depends on why you do it, which agency headquarters are moved, and where they go.
Let's look back at some of the reasons why we might move agencies, because those drive the selection of agencies to relocate and where they might go. If we’re looking to fortify our continuity of government, then maybe we should move large chunks of Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury, Justice, and the State Department. They could move just about anywhere in the continental U.S., as long as that location is near a major city with adequate transportation and housing. If we want agencies to be closer to the people they serve, then maybe we should move more of Agriculture and Interior — probably to the Midwest and West. If we want to strengthen government’s connection to citizens, then it would probably be best to relocate agencies that have the most direct interaction with those people, like the IRS, the Postal Service, Social Security, and Medicare and Medicaid.
If we are looking to save money, we should probably forget about it, because the cost of disrupting agencies and moving or separating a lot of people are so great that we most likely would not see savings in the near future.
And if we are just trying to mess with or undermine the government? In that case, it really does not matter what agencies move or where they go.
The Potential Fallout of Mass Agency Relocation
Just as there are good reasons to move certain agency headquarters, there are some great reasons to refrain. A radically dispersed government may be less effective and less responsive to the people. No one would argue that current interagency communications and collaboration are as good as they should be; now, imagine how that situation would further deterioriate if those agencies were located all over the country. Moving Social Security to Dallas or Topeka or Dayton might make that agency more responsive to the people in one of those cities, but how would that approach translate to Seattle, Chicago, Cleveland, or any other distant city? Even if the move was intended 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 less likely that those agencies will be able to meet their mission requirements. From a continuity of government perspective, distribution might make it harder to wipe out agency leadership in one fell swoop, but it might also pin a target on cities that our enemies would have otherwise ignored. While we are on the topic of catastrophic events, what about natural disasters? Would we say that the threat of hurricanes and earthquakes would necessarily prohibit an agency from relocating headquarters to Florida, Texas, Louisiana, or other areas that have, historically, borne the brunt of these disasters?
I understand the motives of folks who talk about moving government agencies, especially given my personal experience with relocation. When I was Human Resources (HR) Director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we were having trouble hiring skilled HR professionals in the DC area. On top of that, the competition for HR talent necessitated higher grades for employees who did meet our needs. To resolve those issues, I relocated headquarters human resources support to Columbus, OH and New Cumberland, PA. It was a good move — driven by effectiveness and efficiency, not politics — and I would do it again.
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. If and when we do undertake a massive relocation, a non-partisan commission — not politicians — should helm the process. 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. But if we are not willing to make the decision based on good government rather than good politics, let's just leave it where it is.
A version of this article originally appeared on GovExec.