Don’t fight City Hall

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Tired of Fighting City Hall? Negotiate Instead,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

No matter what organization you work for or where you choose to live, sooner or later you’ll find yourself facing off with a government official or agency. 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, writes Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse in his book Seven Secrets for Negotiating with Government (Amacom, 2008). Here are three of the power tools that Salacuse recommends you use to influence the decisions of government officials in your favor:
1. The power of precedent. Government negotiators have a strong motivation to demonstrate that they treat the public fairly. To protect themselves from allegations of
impropriety, they 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.
Salacuse himself did just that when negotiating an agreement with the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the mid-1970s to allow the Ford Foundation to operate in that country. Talks proceeded nicely until Salacuse asked his negotiating partner to grant the foundation tax and customs exemptions. The diplomat hesitated, unsure whether such a concession would be wise or even legal. He perked up, however, when Salacuse mentioned that such exemptions were part of the Ford Foundation’s country agreement with Egypt. Ultimately, they drafted an agreement for Sudan that followed the tax and customs provisions of the Egyptian document word for word.
2. The power of “No surprises.” During a luncheon with active and retired government officials, Salacuse asked one of them to share the most important element of a successful government negotiation. “No surprises!” said the official. The others nodded in agreement.
Why do government officials have such an aversion to being surprised? Because surprises, such as community opposition to a proposed shopping mall or a lawsuit from the developer’s competitors, can threaten their political power.
At all costs, avoid surprising government negotiators or taking actions that make them fear such surprises, 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 any negotiation, talks proceed more smoothly and successfully when parties have a strong working relationship. This is especially true when cultural differences exist, as is often the case in negotiations between government officials and corporate executives, according to Salacuse. How can you build strong relationships with government officials? First, encourage them to talk about their culture. Second, build bridges by identifying similarities between the two sides. When you share information about yourself, you forge connections that reach beyond formal titles.

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One Response to “Don’t fight City Hall”

  • david l.

    Negotiating with agents from governments, especially Asian ones require an approach which emphasises low risk. NO one ever got fired for recommending or approving a RFP that was ‘safe’ at the expenses of enhance features, innovation et al. I think a winning key is to highlight aspects of your proposal to government bodies – which are the safe/reliable/sure-win sort


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