Can you negotiate with government? The simple answer is yes you can. But the real answer requires an understanding of what the other side wants. When you are involved in a negotiation, any negotiation, having an understanding of what the other side wants is critical to an effective negotiation. 

When you are negotiating with a seller, they might be looking for the highest price, or perhaps greater certainty that the transaction will happen on time, or happen at all. They might be looking for a quick closing. 

But when you are dealing with government, you are negotiating with people who are not owners. They are employees of the government and stewards of public resources. What drives their decision making is going to be different than a private business. 

In one case, we had a regulatory body imposing a different section of the building code upon a project, despite clear specification to the contrary. You might say that you can never fight city hall. I’m here to tell you that a well researched and well presented case can often result in a successful negotiation.

Most of the time when you negotiate with government, you are not dealing with elected officials, but with paid bureaucrats. 

There are two different circumstances that require a vastly different approaches. 

  1. Case falls within a defined regulation or procedure. 
  2. Case falls outside a defined procedure. 

In the case of a defined procedure, the ability to negotiate can be much narrower. 

But often, there are conflicting regulations, and negotiation involves convincing the government official on which set of rules to apply under the circumstances. 

Most government negotiations fall into some variation of that idea. This type of negotiating requires deep research and the expertise of those who have an understanding of the inner workings of the government department. 

The second case involves circumstances where there is no defined procedure. That involves someone taking a risk and making a decision that they might need to defend in the future. 

For many government employees, their job is to keep their boss and the elected official from appearing in the newspaper. Any negotiation will require a risk assessment. 

If the government employee is comfortable with the risk, then you can effectively negotiate. But if they’re not, then you might be stopped dead in your tracks. 

When that happens, your job is to see if there is an existing regulation that is similar to your specific circumstance, and try to convince the official that that rule should apply in this case. You really want to make the case of no rule look like the first circumstance of conflicting rules, where some discretion can be applied to choose the most appropriate rule to fit the circumstance. 

Let me give a specific example. There are two properties that were purchased with federal deed restrictions requiring the building of affordable multi family housing within a defined time. In the meantime, the city changed the zoning to single family. 

So here we have two levels of government imposing conflicting rules. Unless both sets of rules are in agreement, the project can’t move forward. 

These types of situations arise frequently. There are often experts, many of them are attorneys who specialize in navigating the web of conflicting rules who can help you negotiate a winning solution. 

If your issue is zoning, you may consult an urban planner or a zoning attorney.