Careers in Federal Planning
Over the past year APA's Federal Planning Division conducted interviews focusing on the careers of planners who work for the federal government.
Laura E.B. Yates, AICP, program manager at the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management, conducted the four interviews found below and wrote the following introduction:
Planners work for many federal agencies from the Department of Defense to the Federal Aviation Administration to the National Park Service. Many federal planning jobs can be found advertised under the occupational series 0020, Community Planning, on usajobs.gov although planners work in many other career fields throughout the federal government.
My own foray into federal planning began with a Palace Acquire internship with the U.S. Air Force, where I trained as a base community planner. Military installations are organized similarly to a city, with public works offices that operate similar to the office of a city manager. Military bases have schools, grocery stores, housing, administrative offices, and industrial areas as well as special military operations and training areas. Planners help manage construction activities, land use, transportation, environmental and cultural resources, and they coordinate with the surrounding communities just as a municipal planner would, with the bonus of working closely with men and women in uniform conducting unique military operations.
My own career has included comprehensive, airfield and encroachment planning and cultural resources management with the Air Force, construction program management with the Department of Defense Education Activity, the DoD's school system, and facility management, planning and program management with the U.S. Army. While working with the DoD, I have had the opportunity to fly in military aircraft and sail on a navy destroyer. I have rappelled down a 50-foot tower, visited and helped design schools attended by military children in Germany and the U.S., and trained with service men and women in uniform.
Throughout it all, I've worked with inspiring professionals who have had their own unique experiences as federal planners. The first interview below is with my former supervisor Suzanne Allan, whose fascinating career led her to become the chief of long range planning of the U.S. federal courts.
Since then, I've searched for other federal planners who are willing to share their unique stories, anecdotes, and advice about how to have a successful career in federal planning.
Below are my interviews with Andrea Wohlfeld Kuhn, senior planner with USACE, and Geno Patriarca, a 2014 recipient of the Rik Wiant Distinguished Service and Leadership Award who has influenced Air Force planning at all levels.
Visit APA's Federal Planning Division for more information about federal planning and to join the division.
About the Author
Laura E.B. Yates, AICP
Suzanne Allan is a planner whose military service led her to a planning job with the United States Air Force, and who has since served as a federal planner with all three branches of the U.S. federal government.
Read the Interview with Suzanne Allan
By Laura B. Yates
I first met Suzanne Allan when she hired me into my first federal planning job, as an Air Force Palace Acquire intern at Langley AFB. Her position, as chief of planning and programming at Langley, was her first as a federal planner though not her first job working for the Department of Defense.
After majoring in geography (with a specialization in urban Planning and Cartography), Allan first served as an active-duty Air Force aircraft maintenance officer. Upon separating from active duty service, she returned to her planning roots and served in various city planning offices in southern Virginia, with the cities of Poquoson, Chesapeake, and Norfolk. Although she enjoyed these positions and added many tools to her planning toolkit during this time, Allan missed working in the military environment. So one day, when she wandered into the federal building in Norfolk and saw a job announcement for a community planner position at Langley Air Force Base, she applied, and thus began her career as a federal planner.
Allan's years at Langley were fruitful; here, she served under several professional mentors, and in 1999 was selected to attend a fully funded, one-year, full-time, in-residence planning master's degree program at the University of Virginia, while still employed on the USAF's rolls. It was shortly upon her return from the program that I encountered Allan, who became one of my own professional mentors. She held me to high standards for quality of work, professional bearing and dress, and instructed me on all aspects of how to be a successful military base planner, lessons I still use today.
In 2003, Allan started looking for a new position through USA Jobs and was selected for a promotion as a regional shore infrastructure planner with the U.S. Navy Mid-Atlantic Region. This position expanded her experience from a focus on just one base to a macro-level regional approach to planning. Learning a new vernacular, business process, and culture was a rewarding experience.
In 2005, Allan switched gears again, this time moving to service with the U.S. Coast Guard's Fifth District planning office. Here, she oversaw facilities planning efforts, focusing on facilities that ranged from trailers to historic lighthouses to major air stations. The job involved travel from New Jersey to North Carolina to visit various Coast Guard stations, and advocating for funding to improve facilities via self-help projects, major renovation, and new construction. The job was especially rewarding because it demonstrated how much an underfunded agency can accomplish with a resourceful and can-do attitude.
In 2008, Allan applied for another new position with the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., a switch from the executive to the legislative branch of federal government. She calls this job "the place to be" as a planner jumping into the D.C. job scene.
Allan reported directly to Congress on facility issues for the U.S. Capitol building, House and Senate Office buildings, the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, the Capitol complex utility plant, and the Capitol grounds. Allan completed a new master plan for the Capitol Complex, what she calls "the most complex and daunting approval process I've been subjected to," involving approval through congressional oversight committees and briefing staffers and members of Congress.
Allan had "free rein" to walk through the Capitol building, meeting with the majority and minority leaders of Senate and House committees (they got along better than you'd think — behind closed doors). The position emphasized the importance of brevity, knowing your audience, and efficiently sharing the information you need to present so leaders can make decisions in a fast-paced environment.
In 2010, Allan made the move to her current position and checked the box on working as a planner with the judicial branch, as she became the chief of long range planning of the U.S. federal courts. This office completes long range planning for the 94 districts and 13 circuits of the U.S. Courts, from some of the nation's most historic courthouses and iconic new construction, to leased storefronts and generic office space.
Allan's office develops long-range plans for the courthouses, looking at current and projected caseloads and staffing to determine if courthouses need to grow, shrink, or be renovated. Her office works with the General Services Administration to secure funding to execute the U.S. Courts Courthouse Priorities Plan and educates and advocates on the Hill for the funds. In this position, Allan has traveled all over the U.S.
Looking back at her career thus far, Allan ruminates that the most rewarding thing about being a federal planner has been the numerous opportunities for advancement, experiencing so many aspects of planning. She's also had the opportunity to work with people who believe in the importance of what they do and in their agencies' missions.
Allan's advice to young planners starting off in their careers: "Be aware of the opportunities open to you; remember the lessons learned along the way. You'll have successes and failures, but they are all lessons to be learned. Through it all, be true to yourself."
Andrea Wohlfeld Kuhn, FAICP
Andrea Wohlfeld Kuhn started her federal career with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command before moving to the Army Corps of Engineers. In her current role, among other duties, she develops and teaches courses through the Department of Defense Master Planning Institute.
Read the Interview with Andrea Wohlfeld Kuhn
By Laura E.B. Yates, AICP
The National Building Museum served as a fitting backdrop for my interview with mentor, Andrea Wohlfeld Kuhn, senior planner with the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). I, like most planners working in the federal arena, had seen Kuhn's name many times in publications like the Army's Public Works Digest, and in relation to her work with the Department of Defense (DoD) Master Planning Institute. I was happy to finally meet her in person and learn more about her exciting career in federal planning.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Sociology degree at the University of Virginia, Kuhn's career began as an entry-level community planning aide with Fairfax County, Virginia, where she worked on the county's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program developing neighborhood improvement plans for low- and moderate-income communities. Fairfax County outside Washington, D.C., had some very rural, underserved areas with no plumbing and dirt roads. Kuhn enjoyed the opportunity to work with the local residents and serve these neglected communities, and the job was a great introduction to planning at the neighborhood level.
While still working full time with Fairfax County, Kuhn completed her master's degree in public administration with a concentration in urban planning at George Washington University. It was during her last semester that she learned about an opportunity to apply for the Presidential Management Intern (today Fellows) Program, a two-year program with the federal government. Still a student, Kuhn made it through the rigorous application process, and once selected, was faced with finding an organization with which to complete her internship. It happened that the American Planning Association (APA) conference was held in Washington, D.C., that year. While attending one of the sessions, Kuhn learned about a community planner position opening with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC). Thus began her career as a federal planner.
Kuhn's two-year internship with NAVFAC eventually turned into a permanent position and resulted in 15 years with the Navy. Her first challenge: figuring out the array of military acronyms. Her initial position focused on historic preservation and land use compatibility planning, and included valuable training and education opportunities through the internship program.
Kuhn's position eventually evolved to focus more on base closure and new mission impacts to local communities. As the Navy's special assistant for socioeconomics, she traveled to Navy bases and again got to work with local community residents to better understand and mitigate the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the Navy's actions. During this time, Kuhn was also able to serve on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Working Group on Environmental Justice. Kuhn found gratification in working with representatives from other organizations to better understand the impacts that some DoD actions have on underserved communities, and the best way to mitigate these impacts.
Kuhn's work with NAVFAC also led her to focus on sustainability, where she served as the Navy's program manager for sustainable planning when many in the DoD were still trying to figure out what sustainability meant. Working with a group of Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force representatives, Kuhn was instrumental in developing an early sustainability study, Sustainable Planning: A Multi-Service Assessment (2009), that helped formalize DoD policy on the role planning plays in sustainability.
Although happy with her career at NAVFAC, Kuhn started a job search in 2000. She happened upon a job announcement for a position with the U.S. General Services Administration's (GSA) Office of Real Property. Intrigued about the idea of doing something different, exploring a non-DoD organization, and expanding her knowledge base, Kuhn applied for a "program expert" position. Kuhn found work with the GSA fulfilling. She was able to express herself in writing, publishing numerous federal guides on real property and planning issues, and later, as the evaluation branch team leader, took an intermediary step to becoming a supervisor.
One of Kuhn's best experiences with the GSA involved her participation in the Advanced Leadership Development Program, an 18-month manager/leadership development program that involved training seminars/workshops, and participation in a two-month developmental assignment. Kuhn was assigned to the corporate real estate headquarters of Deutsche Post DHL (the German equivalent of the United States Postal Service) in Bonn, Germany.
The assignment posed challenges (Kuhn doesn't speak German and was initially intimidated about leaving family and living alone in a foreign country), but the experience brought enormous opportunities. Kuhn learned how planning and facilities issues (like selling/repurposing aging federal post office buildings) are handled in another country. She was able to share her knowledge and experience about U.S. real property and land use policy and procedures while expanding her knowledge to include a broader international perspective.
Kuhn had every intention of remaining with the GSA, but one day was forwarded a job announcement for a senior realty specialist position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which she began in 2004.
Kuhn encourages planners not to pigeonhole themselves but to consider other opportunities that allow for career progression and broadening. She reflects on her senior realty specialist position as extremely challenging, focusing on technical real estate issues, and offering her the opportunity to take on supervisory duties for the first time.
In 2007, Kuhn went back to her roots as a senior planner with USACE. She has had the opportunity to develop and teach courses through the DoD Master Planning Institute, and authored landmark DoD planning policy, participating on the team that developed the Unified Facilities Criteria 2-100-01, Installation Master Planning (2012). Kuhn is passionate about the importance of training DoD personnel and relishes the opportunity to work with and learn from the many students that participate in DoD Master Planning Institute programs.
Along with her advice to not be afraid to take on opportunities for career broadening, Kuhn cites her active participation in APA's Federal Planning Division as key to her career success. Mentors and friends encouraged her to take an active role in the organization, serving as Navy liaison, awards chair, and division chair. Her experience with the division has provided countless opportunities to learn from other DoD and non-DoD agency representatives, and has offered an opportunity to give back to her profession.
Kuhn also encourages young planners to not be afraid to volunteer or sign up for a project that no one else wants. Sometimes a dreaded experience can evolve into something else, or lead to finding a mentor or close friend. Kuhn emphasizes the importance of focusing on education and professional development to ensure career success. Education should never end; we can all always improve and learn, and Kuhn isn't done yet.
Planners starting out in their careers must seek balance, says Kuhn. Set goals (and aim high) but don't get discouraged if you don't meet your original goal. Sometimes the path you end up on, while different from expectations, can lead to more fulfilling places.
While her career looks good on paper, Kuhn emphasizes that there were plenty of challenges, bumps, and difficult supervisors and co-workers along the way. Looking back at those challenges, Kuhn can see that they were an important part of getting her to where she is today.
Make your own opportunities, Kuhn says. You may be lucky to find others who will mentor and encourage you, but you must motivate yourself to branch out, find new opportunities, and experience new things.
Geno Patriarca has had a long and varied career in local and federal planning. He believes the role of planner is to "bring everything together" and think both strategically and tactically.
Read the Interview with Geno Patriarca
By Laura E.B. Yates, AICP
I met Headquarters Air Force's Geno Patriarca at the Pentagon. To prove that the federal planning world is a small place, Patriarca remembered being on the phone with my father, a peer of Patriarca's at a neighboring base in the 1980s, talking Air Installation Compatible Use Zone, when my father had to abruptly leave the call after learning that my mother had gone into labor with my younger brother (who, incidentally, is also an Air Force planner today). The anecdote was just one of the interesting stories Patriarca had to share, starting with how he got into the planning field ...
In 1968, Patriarca graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Russian language from Hartwick College in Oneota, New York. He intended to go into the Foreign Service and serve in the diplomatic realm, but it was the time of the Vietnam War, and he ended up serving three years in the Army.
Among other duties, Patriarca attended the Defense Language Institute, where he became fluent in Korean (he also speaks Italian). After his time in the service, Patriarca found himself unemployed. A Veteran's Administration program promised to pay half of his salary if he could find a job, so when Patriarca saw a planning technician job at Cortland County Planning Department in Cortland, New York, he took it without even knowing what planning was.
Patriarca feels fortunate that his path led him to the field. His first message to the young planner: "Don't be afraid of change. Change is good!"
At Cortland County, Patriarca was involved in zoning and site plan review, a background he calls, "invaluable, because it forced me to learn to think analytically, considering the facts." Patriarca also obtained his master of science degree in urban and regional planning at Syracuse University. However, he hated the cold weather and snow, and he was ready to "get out of town."
In March 1976, when Patriarca heard about an opening for a senior transportation planner with the Pima Association of Governments in Tucson, Arizona, his question for the interviewers was simple: "What's the temperature there?" When he heard it was a balmy 72 degrees, he responded, "I'll take it!"
In his new, transportation-focused job, Patriarca served as a senior planner working on the State Council of Government's Urban Travel Demand Model, which projected future transportation demand for Pima County. The plan was the first transportation planning master plan / improvements program in the region. The effort included extensive public involvement, where various courses of action were presented at public hearings.
Patriarca enjoyed the Tucson experience. Getting to know the people he was planning for was satisfying on a personal level. Adapting to the dynamics of working with diverse groups was a critical planning skill he picked up in the position.
In 1981, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base was establishing an environmental division, and had an opening for a community planner. Patriarca applied and got the job, thus beginning his career in federal planning.
At the base, Patriarca was involved with the typical base planning tasks: General Plan, Base Realignment and Closure data calls, planning studies, siting, Air Installation Compatible Use Zone (AICUZ), and more. What he found most different from local/ regional government planning was the constant change in leadership, having to inform those leaders of the details of the plan, gauging their reaction, and adapting as the leaders implemented their own agendas.
The good news was that Patriarca would see results in two to five years, given that funds were plentiful at the time. In local governments, the successful implementation of a plan depended on whether private developers committed funding.
One of Patriarca's most interesting projects involved the AICUZ program. The base had had essentially no communication with the neighboring city and county until the Air Force confronted a plan for a 25,000-home development within the base runway's Accident Potential Zone. Patriarca and the base team worked with the community to share the impacts the development could have on the both on the community and the base.
Patriarca made sure to capture his audiences' attention. He presented a Charles Dickens-inspired brief titled, "A Tale of Two Runway Ends," that began, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." The base worked with the communities to come up with an alternative plan, an agreement with Pima County that allowed rezoning for a 2,500-home development outside of the zones.
Patriarca remembers taking the memorandum of agreement for the plan to the base's commanding general for signature. The general initially didn't want to sign because he was concerned about the base compromising with any development near the base at all. Patriarca had learned a valuable lesson: as a planner you have to listen to all sides and look for the compromise.
In 1990, Patriarca was promoted to chief of the newly established base development office at Davis-Monthan. The office's establishment was timely, as the base faced the beddown of various new missions. Patriarca became heavily involved with the implementation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as a planning tool. For a four-year period, the base hosted the largest GIS training center west of the Mississippi, training Department of Defense (DoD) planners as well as representatives from other agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and U.S. Park Service.
Patriarca linked up his efforts with the neighboring communities' GIS programs to track development around the base. He even got to use his Korean language skills to converse with host nation representatives when supporting Planning Assistance Teams (PAT) at bases in Korea.
He recommends that all planners participate in PATs or APA's Community Planning Assistance Teams — "an excellent opportunity to work in a multi-disciplinary environment to solve planning issues."
The National Capital Planning Commission is the federal government's planning agency and represents the federal establishment with city leadership. The agency works to coordinate the impacts of federal projects on the local community.
Read the Interview with Marcel Acosta
By Laura E. B. Yates
Few federal planners can say that they can trace their careers as far back as high school, but Marcel Acosta's career got under way with three-month summer internship with the General Services Administration's (GSA) San Francisco regional office in 1977. The road that led him towards his current position as executive director of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) includes experience in municipal planning, a background that has helped him lead this unique agency.
Acosta graduated from the University of California in 1983 with a degree in economics, then began a volunteer internship with a civic organization, the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council in Chicago, while simultaneously obtaining his master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Along with work on his thesis concerning the potential privatization of public housing, Acosta's Chicago internship offered a great opportunity for the young planner to network and prove he was capable and had something to contribute. The internship left the early impression that "connections count. ... Always remember who was in a room and who you met. Even a volunteer internship can give you a contact or a reference who might later help you further your career."
Following earning his degree, Acosta began work with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development as a city planner and became the director of central area planning. With staffers in short supply and workload plentiful, the 28-year old planner was lucky to work on notable projects such as the Navy Pier redevelopment and the relocation of Lake Shore Drive to create the Museum Campus.
Acosta took the work seriously. He was later promoted to the position of deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, overseeing downtown planning, policy research, and citywide physical planning.
Acosta also served as senior vice president of planning and development for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). The biggest challenge was negotiating a 10 percent bus and rail service reduction, which was incredibly difficult from a community relations, political, and planning standpoint. He also worked on planning for the renovation and reconstruction of the CTA's Blue and Brown lines.
Years later, Acosta's CTA experience contributed to his appointment to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority board of directors where he served for four years as a federal appointee, and chaired the board's Finance and Administration Committee for two years.
In 2001, Acosta received a Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. It was around this time that a former colleague — then executive director of the NCPC — encouraged him to apply to the NCPC's deputy executive director position. Acosta calls his time working in the nation's capital a great honor: "In D.C., the 'corporate neighbor' is the federal government. The NCPC represents the federal establishment with city leadership and is the interface between the federal government and the community."
Acosta found many of the skills he had honed as a municipal planner were needed at a federal agency: negotiation skills, problem solving skills, a sense of vision and an understanding of the key priorities of leadership, and the ability to work with other agencies to achieve them.
When the NCPC was created, Acosta said, there was an understanding that, "the local government can't regulate [the federal government], but there needed to be some way to coordinate the impacts of federal projects on the local community. The sheer number of federal buildings in D.C. and the region, the traffic, the infrastructure challenges ... that's why we have the NCPC."
In 2008, Acosta was named executive director of the NCPC.
In his time with the organization, Acosta has worked on some interesting and sometimes controversial projects, especially when coordinating new projects alongside some of D.C.'s more historic monuments. A recent example is the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, controversial to some because of its modern architecture and location immediately adjacent to the Washington Monument.
"I think there is a misunderstanding regarding the role of modern architecture in a purpose-built capital," he said. "Obviously, it is important to protect the symbolic elements of the L'Enfant Plan. ... We have a stewardship responsibility to maintain the historic landscape, but modern architecture is not at odds with that."
Acosta's advice for young planners hoping to have a successful career in federal planning is to be open minded.
"(Many) people have a set agenda. They don't see the possibilities of a career in planning," he said. "(Planners) deal with so many unrelated issues: architecture, economics, health, transportation, engineering. Few professions have such a broad array of topics to tackle."
Also, "be open to learn things you don't know ... keep learning. Don't dismiss a topic as not important. Everything that is brought to the table needs to be addressed. This applies to how you lead your staff, or how you address your superiors. Think of why you've become a planner, what you bring to the table.
"You connect the dots, (you) highlight the big picture. And be open-minded and open to change. It's a conundrum (to me) how many planners aren't open to change."
"I've found this community of planners to be open and welcoming," says Acosta regarding the American Planning Association its Federal Planning Division.
"(It's good to be able to discuss) specific issues common to federal planning: National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) responsibilities, National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106), planning for military installations, and understanding these processes. The networks formed are valuable to all those who participate."