If You Want Federal Agencies To Work Together, They Should Be In The Same Place

Over the weekend, Ross Douthat had an op-ed lamenting the rise of the well-to-do liberal city. We’ll leave aside a key cause of gentrification and pricing out the middle class (note that these aren’t the same thing), which is rising income inequality: you can’t have gentrification without a gentry class (oddly enough, aspiring upper-middle class and ensconced gentry class writers seem to ignore this…).

Instead, Douthat proposes the following (boldface mine):

First, the easy part: Let’s take the offices of our federal government, now concentrated in the vampiric conurbation of Greater Washington, D.C., and spread them around, in poorer states and smaller cities that need revitalization. Vox’s Matt Yglesias has proposed a version of this idea — distributing various health and science and regulatory agencies to Detroit or Cleveland or Milwaukee — and it’s perfect for the next politician who claims to want to really drain the swamp.

That Douthat and Yglesias both believe relocating federal agencies is a good idea might be telling you something.

Consider the U.S. government’s anti-antimicrobial resistance and food borne disease efforts. These issues involve multiple federal organizations, such as NIH (and multiple divisions within NIH), the CDC, USDA, and the FDA (DoD at times is also involved). In my opinion, the CDC, being based in Atlanta, is at a disadvantage. The other agencies can and do meet in person to discuss various problems, issues, and collaborations. Yes, many of the exchanges use email, the internet, and the phone–the same as everywhere else. But there are times when only a face-to-face meeting will do. For the D.C. area-based agencies, that just means a car ride or Metro trip. But scientists at the CDC have to get on a plane, and depending on the type of meeting, stay overnight. That’s both time-consuming and expensive.

By the way, does anyone think that federal agency travel budgets are going to increase any time soon? (And if you host a scientific meeting, consider having it in D.C. every now and again, because that’s often the only way federal scientists can attend).

While I’ve picked two areas that I know (and in which I know people), I think this is a more general problem: it’s harder for CDC to get an equal seat at the table in those intangible ways: face-to-face meetings and after-hours socializiation. Obviously, it has representatives and personnel in the D.C. area, but high-level personnel are typically based in Atlanta, giving them less presence as well. Any reliance on expensive travel also makes it harder for less-senior people to be involved in meetings, which is bad for the junior people and for the effectiveness of a meeting. To be clear, I think the CDC personnel are very good and very dedicated, but there is an effect of not being near other agencies with whom they need to interact.

So if you want to move federal agencies out of the den of inequity and villany that is D.C., fine. Just be aware that there are real costs to the effectiveness of those organizations. Those costs might be worth paying, but that comes at a price of lower mission effectiveness.

Aside: Three other tangential points. First, the people who work in these agencies might not want to live in these other areas. Second, professionals need a critical mass. If you’re a biologist and you lose your job or want to make a change, it’s a lot easier in a cities like Boston and Cambridge where a job change typically means a different T station, not an entire household move; there are also ‘networking’ advantages. Third, as noted above, the role of income inequality is huge here, but is treated as something that can’t be altered, only shifted from place to place.

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2 Responses to If You Want Federal Agencies To Work Together, They Should Be In The Same Place

  1. becca says:

    I see where you’re coming from, but when I was doing food pathogen research it didn’t seem like anybody talked to anybody, to be honest.
    Like the USDA and FDA don’t coordinate- if anything they fight for turf in the frozen pizza aisle. And nobody Gets Stuff Done like the CDC when it comes to tracing down outbreaks, but CDC plays better with academics than with either USDA or FDA.

    If academics want academic type sharing of information and resources, we’ll have to teach the government how to do it (and yes, conferences in DC at least some of the time is an excellent start). I think government-academia centers may also be worthwhile for getting some of the benefits of spreading out the government while keeping a critical mass of expertise.

  2. sglover says:

    For some time now the Feds have been actively promoting telework options. They may even be something of a leader in this approach to work-life arrangements. So they don’t seem to rate mere physical location as highly as they did a decade or more ago. And of course now there are all kinds of cheap, reliable, secure tools for remote collaboration.

    Whenever Yglesias or Douhat endorse something, it’s usually a sign that extra-vigilant scepticism is in order. But anybody who lives in the Beltway **and** has occasion to get outside of it knows that DC is very much as the cliche’ has it, a cloistered, self-regarding village. Do you think Americans didn’t notice when the counties bordering DC were pretty much the only region in the U.S. that shrugged off the 2008 economic catastrophe? Is a glittering imperial center a healthy thing for republican (small “r”) government? Do you think that’s **not** going to stoke widespread, seething resentment? Maybe you should ask a certain real-estate speculator (his name begins with “T”, rhymes with “chump”) for answers.

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