Staff vs. Line Positions

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


The differences in roles and perspectives between staff (usually at headquarters) and line (often in regional offices) are among the most enduring institutional dynamics in government.

In her 2015 report (reference below, p. 8-9) on her summer internship in a federal department, Ellen Hines, MPP 2016, wrote:

“The biggest tension noted, of which I saw numerous instances, was the issue of standardization. From HQ’s perspective, consistency across all recipients and programs is preferred. They want to standardize processes, criteria and delivery. Regional employees, on the other hand, strongly favour an approach that tailors policy based on regional variation. They believe that a one-size-fits-all approach to processes, criteria and delivery is ill-suited to the large degree of variation in conditions and cultures across the country. There are clearly merits to both sides of this policy debate, and it is the responsibility of Regional Operations to attempt to balance these two approaches.

“Communication between headquarters, where policy is written, and the regional offices, where it is implemented, should be open. Most importantly, it must be two-way communication. Working in RO, I heard frequent comments that suggested issues of this nature on both sides. Those who implement policies must be consulted in designing effective policy, and those who write policies must be clearer in its intent and practical application.

“… it is important to have experience in both HQ and on the ground. Policies are often developed based on an abstract set of policy objectives with an idealized implementation setting. When policy implementation proves different than the intention, HQ may view regions as non-compliant. Operations, however, need more practical policies that are grounded in reality; they can view policies as designed to “thwart” them. In reality, both sides of the debate are valid. …

“Acknowledging the difference between staff and operations is important. These two areas of policy professionals have different perspectives and different roles. If the differences between these two groups are not recognized, they cannot be reconciled. Balancing policy writing with implementation requires open communication and a willingness to cooperate. They cannot cooperate if they do not acknowledge different perspectives and needs.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Institutional Dynamics within Government (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Ellen Hines (2015), Internship Report: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, at

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 28 August 2016.