How to Win with Bureaucrats and Politicians Effectively
Here are some tips for dealing with bureaucrats in order to make a little headway with them (I speak from experience on both sides…. I was one). I served in government service for over 32 years; 26 of those in the California fire service and the related bureaucracy. I offer these as tips; not as gospel.
I want to be clear that I do not consider bureaucrats the enemy; quite the opposite. We need them to manage our public lands….and we need to help them. Here are my tips for dealing with bureaucracy (government, politicians, administrators, agency types, etc.)
(For simplicity, let’s say that B = Bureaucrat)
Here’s my simple version of dealing with B’s.
- Seek First to Understand: Before you can convince a B of your opinion or needs, you should first consider trying to understand where they’re coming from. Once you understand (not necessarily agree with) their position, you can better find ways to negotiate with them.
- Listen: Probably the most important trait anyone can have for any dealings with people, but it’s especially true with B’s. They’ve got to believe that you’re hearing their side of the story before they will relinquish any ground. And if you’re busy showing them you’re not listening, they’re likely not to give any ground out of a personal reaction. More importantly, you need to play lawyer a bit. In other words, the more they talk, the more you find loopholes and trails……by trails, I mean paper or word trails that allow you room to maneuver during negotiations or meetings.
Let’s take an example: suppose you want to convince the local District Ranger to open a road. During talks/letters, she says “Sorry, I can’t open that road because of our Draft Travel Management Plan.” You say: “I see; may I have a copy of the Draft Plan please, for my records and review?” She says: “No, it’s against our policy to hand out a draft of this document.” You say: “I see; may I have a copy of the policy for my records, please?”
Get where I’m going? Listen well enough to see the loopholes and methods to keep getting information and other ways to get to your desired end results. In this case, if the policy were not obtainable, you’d naturally give the B a chance to back-peddle and eventually give you the darn Plan that you wanted in the first place. Let them save face if at all possible. If you burn one, it’ll eventually come back to bite you. However, in extreme cases, you may have to jump up the chain of command and give them a thorough administrative thrashing.
- Persist: Yes, it pays to persist. If you haven’t dealt with a big bureaucracy before, it’s kind of like getting a job. You’ve got to stay at it. Write, follow-up call, write again, ask, listen, ask, write…etc. Sometimes it’s easier to give in than to fight a persistent user …. come to think of it, I believe that many eco-greenies get their way with precisely this tactic!!! Another way to look at this is to admonish yourself to not accept the first three no’s.
- Respect: It always pays to be respectful with B’s, even when you’re ready to explode with anger. You’ll win in the end. On the other hand, if you lose your demeanor and become disrespectful, they have every right to cut you off and sink your ship in the bureaucratic process. They ARE public servants; we do pay their salaries; but they’re no less human than you or me. So, we need to maintain our cool……if you end up in a legal proceeding of some sort and can show that a B lost his/her cool while you maintained yours, you’ll gain some significant ground.
- Deliver: If you’re working with B’s in a project or planning process, deliver what you promise; and don’t promise what you can’t deliver! Make sure if you’re going to do something, you do it. You’ll always look good.
- Know the Jargon: To really be effective in speaking the language of a bureaucrat, you should take a little time to learn their rank system, chain of command, and jargon. Not everyone is a Park Ranger. USFS rangers are called District Rangers or Forest Rangers. Park Service folks do use the term Park Ranger, as does BLM and the Bureau of Reclamation. Fish and Game folks are Wardens or Lieutenants and Captains, or biologists, or other related terms.
- Due Dates: When you’re working with or negotiating with B’s, let them do their job; give them a reasonable time to do it; but PIN THEM DOWN. In the Plan example above, you might ask: When could I have a copy of the plan? The B might say: I’ll send it to you. Then you would pin her down by saying: Great, when can I expect it, so I can mark my calendar?
If you can do it, let the B pick the due date……that makes it their complete responsibility and self-imposed requirement. Well, this list isn’t complete by any means, but if you use these tips, you’ll find yourself winning more than loosing.
Let’s stop losing trails to bureaucracy and bureaucrats or politicians simply because we do not know the game! Understand what is going on; learn the lingo; listen carefully; and deliver what you promise! Our public lands are managed by public servants; but many times, they need our help in getting to the best management practices. Be in the game!