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The Differences Between Working in Federal, State or Local Government

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The flags of the City of Dallas, State of Texas and United States of America fly together.

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In many ways, government work is government work no matter where you do it. Government work can be performed on the federal, state or local level. Several facets distinguish the work among these levels, chief among them being scope, sovereignty, proximity and types of jobs.

Different Responsibilities

The scope of a government is how much it can legitimately do within its authority. The scope of the federal government is defined by the U.S. Constitution. Federal workers deal with problems, issues and laws impacting the entire nation such as national defense, border security, foreign affairs and workplace safety. The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution delegates powers not expressly granted to the federal government to reside with the states or citizens themselves. State workers administer programs that impact state citizens, visitors to the state and those parties seeking to do business in the state.

Local governments are created under the authority of states. Local workers perform functions pertaining only to their jurisdiction such as county road maintenance, library services and garbage collection.

Responses to natural or man-made disasters illustrate the scope of government. If one or two houses are on fire, local government responds. If several hundred houses are on fire, a collection of local governments with state oversight respond. If a thousand square miles of land are on fire, the federal government will likely oversee response efforts.

Sovereignty of Higher Levels of Government

Higher levels of government are sovereign over lower levels of government. This means that, for example, a state cannot enact a law contrary to federal law. Likewise, a local government cannot violate state law. Workers at lower levels of government must operate within laws of their own level and those of higher levels. Local government workers must ensure their actions comply with federal, state and local laws. State government workers operate within federal and state laws. Federal workers perform their duties within the confines of the U.S. Constitution and federal laws.

Proximity to Citizens

Local government workers live in the communities their work impacts. If a citizen’s garbage is not collected the trash truck driver, solid waste supervisor, public works director or city manager could live next door and could get an earful about it. Citizens can point to a career service manager or front-line employee to fix their problem.

Citizens usually do not have this luxury for state and federal governments. At times they may be lucky to find a toll-free telephone number or e-mail address to contact. State workers who frequently interact with the public include state police officers, social workers and driver's license office workers.

With the exception of going to the local post office, the ordinary citizen does not have much contact with federal employees.

Types of Jobs

Any job you can do, you can almost always find a place in government to do it. Every organization needs someone to pay the bills. However, some jobs only exist in particular levels of government. For instance, firefighters are almost exclusive to local government. But if you're creative and think about what attracts you to the work, you can find a fit. Continuing with the fire fighter example, you may discover that what attracts you to firefighting is your desire to save lives. So if you want to save lives, you don't necessarily have to be a firefighter. You can join a branch of the military or work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or your state police force.

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