top of page

Communicating With the Government (or Bureaucrats Are People Too!)

One of Stan Meiburg's five steps for effectively communicating with government is to know specifically what you want. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?
One of Stan Meiburg's five steps for effectively communicating with government is to know specifically what you want.

Everyone has heard the punchline, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”.  Ronald Reagan famously used this as a laugh line in his 1980 Presidential campaign, even while seeking to be a part of the government himself, presumably to help!

All of us interact with many levels of government, for purposes as routine as getting a driver’s license or as complex as permits for multibillion-dollar construction projects.


The Dread of Faceless Bureaucrats

Some people dread this experience or approach it with the perspective that “faceless bureaucrats” are humorless, rule-bound enforcers who hold onto decisions as means of enhancing their personal power or demonstrating that they are in control.  If you find yourself falling into this “perception attribution” trap, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to step back and reassess the situation.  Sure, every organization has challenging people, but the vast, vast majority of government officials are hard working and sincerely dedicated to serving the public and carrying out the mission of their respective agencies—missions that we all need, whether it’s public safety, emergency response, environmental protection, or health care. 


Improve Your Experience

In my experience, these five steps can be helpful in making your interactions with government both more successful and pleasurable.


1.      Know what you want

Do your homework in advance so that you know specifically what it is that you want as an outcome of your interaction with government.  Define success for yourself; it makes it easier to describe it to others.  Also be sure that what you want is within the power of the government agent to deliver.  Asking someone to do something they can’t do is a waste of their time and yours.


2.      Learn the language

Many agencies have a specialized vocabulary (environmental agencies, especially).  Learn what this vocabulary is and how to speak it, including acronyms.  Also understand the operational routine of the agency—how decision processes work and what are expected timelines for transactions with the agency.


3.      Understand their constraints

Everyone in government has a boss, just like you do.  What they also have, of course, are laws, regulations and procedures governing their actions which are in many instances quite prescriptive.  It is not enough for your idea to be a good one; you should diligently anticipate objections that may arise and be prepared to address them.

You should also make it your business to understand and respect some of the less formal constraints officials can face, for example, how what you are trying to do relates to a legislative or electoral calendar. Sometimes people make the mistake of assuming that all decisions are political.  Often they are not, but even seemingly non-political decisions can be affected simply by timing.


4.      Follow the Golden Rule

We all pursue our own interests, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But in dealing with government officials, think about how you would want to be treated if the positions were reversed.  Avoid manipulative tactics.  Be straightforward, transparent, and honest.  Even if in a particular situation you can’t get everything you want, remember that you are building a relationship.  People remember how you made them feel, and a good relationship helps transcend many barriers.  Mutual respect is never out of style.


5.      Look for ways to “Get to Yes”

I find the book, “Getting to Yes”, by Roger Fisher, Willam Ury and Bruce Patton (Houghton Mifflin), to be an exceptionally helpful guide to effective problem solving.  The book gives advice on principled negotiation and interest-based bargaining.  It is well-written, very accessible, and practical. 




Communicating with the government can sometimes be frustrating, but these points can help make this experience not only more productive, but fun!  Who knows, you may someday find yourself on the other side of the desk!  Even if not, you can build relationships that are both professionally productive and personally rewarding. 

Some of the most interesting people you will ever meet work for government!

Approaching your encounters with a spirit of “what can I learn from this person” will make for much more satisfying engagements!



Stan Meiburg is the Executive Director at the Andrew Sabin Family Center for Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest University. He is the former Acting Deputy Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he spent most of his professional career. Stan is a former Chair of the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission.


Communicating with FINESSE is a not-for-profit community of technical professionals dedicated to being highly effective communicators and facilitators. Learn more about our publications, webinars, and workshops. Join the community for free.


bottom of page