Political Negotiation: Negotiating with Bureaucrats

In government and political negotiation, we face a unique set of challenges. Here’s expert advice on how to forge constructive negotiations with government officials and agencies.

By on / International Negotiation

political negotiation

Our most important goals often require government and political negotiation. Here are a few examples:

  • You apply for a permit from your local zoning board to build an addition on your house. The board asks to meet with you to discuss modifications to your proposal.
  • Your organization tries to set up an office to deliver relief aid in a third-world country but runs into opposition from local officials in the host country.
  • You hammer out an agreement to sell your company’s software to a private defense contractor, only to discover that the deal must be approved by the federal government.

Though officials may claim otherwise, they often have a certain amount of discretion when interpreting laws and making decisions. In government and political negotiation, you therefore must determine how much discretion an official has, writes Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse in his book Seven Secrets for Negotiating with Government (Amacom, 2008). 


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


4 Sources of Power in Political Negotiation

Salacuse identifies four sources of power that governments have in both domestic and international negotiations

  1. Monopoly. When you’re negotiating in the private sector, you typically have alternatives to making a deal. These alternatives give you the ability to walk away if you aren’t happy with what the other party is offering. By contrast, a government agency or employee may be the only negotiating partner you’ve got. If you want to sell a drug in the United States, for instance, you need to secure approval from the Food and Drug Administration, notes Salacuse. This monopoly grants government entities considerable negotiating power. Moreover, when you approach a government agency, it likely has no financial incentive to do business with you.
  2. Privilege and immunity. Governments enjoy special legal privileges and immunities that individuals and private organizations do not. They can set laws, regulate businesses, seize property, cancel contracts, and threaten force and punishment, writes Salacuse. Governments are often immune from lawsuits and won’t be punished if they disregard signed contracts. Such privileges can lead you to make concessions you wouldn’t make in the private sector.
  3. The public interest. Government officials understand that their duty is to make decisions that meet the public interest. Some may use this mandate to gain political leverage when negotiating with you. During Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, for example, the federal government refused to pay its international debts, declaring it had a responsibility to protect its people from foreign creditors and investors. Almost any negotiation with a government could be spun to turn public sentiment against you.
  4. Protocol. To maintain and enhance their authority, governments rely on a variety of protocols, including those that dictate how private citizens are allowed to interact with government entities and officials. When you negotiate with government, disrespecting such protocols can be harmful. For example, government agents might be offended by informalities that would be interpreted as friendly in corporate America, such as calling an official by their first name. 

Power tools for dealing with governments

Here are three of the power tools that Salacuse recommends for government and political negotiation:

  1. The power of precedent. To protect themselves from allegations of impropriety, government officials follow rules and regulations closely. But what happens when you’re negotiating issues for which no hard-and-fast rules exist? Cite an established precedent, and give government employees the protection they require.
  2. The power of “No surprises.” Government officials have an aversion to being surprised, according to Salacuse. Surprises, such as community opposition to a proposed shopping mall or a lawsuit from the developer’s competitors, can threaten their political power. So, avoid surprising government negotiators, warns Salacuse. Before negotiating, educate yourself about the political climate surrounding your proposal. Once talks begin, inform officials about the positive and negative consequences of an agreement. If public opposition is likely, work with officials to address community concerns. 
  3. The power of relationships. In cross-cultural negotiations, it’s especially important for parties to have a strong working relationship, according to Salacuse. Suppose that representatives of a New York City–based company enter into talks to build a manufacturing plant with officials in a small town in Arkansas. The negotiation may be suffused with as much, if not more, distrust and miscommunication than if the parties came from different countries. How to overcome cultural barriers in communication? Encourage government officials to talk about their culture. By showing an interest in the small town’s history, achievements, and challenges, the New York executives would acknowledge the role of culture in negotiation while building rapport. Second, build bridges by identifying similarities between the two sides. When you share information about yourself, you forge connections that reach beyond formal titles.

What else have you observed when taking part in a government or political negotiation? 

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  • Brad T.

    1) Know the government negotiator’s job better than he/she does. This takes some research, but much of it should be publicly available or can be gleaned by talking with people who have dealt with the office before.
    2) Related, know all relevant policy/guidance/law and what it specifically includes and what it excludes. Ensure you address all the “shalls” policy, guidance, or law require of the official. They live and die by these and see it as their job to enforce them.

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