Getting to Know Your Federal Agencies

Knowing the ins and outs of interacting with federal agencies is critical for state leaders. Many agencies are large, complex organizations whose sheer size and scope can make it difficult for state officials to know who to contact when problems and questions arise. These challenges can be especially acute when agencies are without key leadership personnel or during presidential transitions when information about who holds decision-making authority may be unclear or unavailable. Despite this, the business of government never stops and a successful relationship between state and federal officials can be an invaluable resource. Below are tips and best practices for building a successful state-federal relationship.

1.         Know and use the intergovernmental affairs offices

Every agency has an office dedicated to communicating with state, local and tribal officials. These offices are responsible for interacting with mayors, governors, legislators and everyone in between. These offices are in frequent contact with state decision-makers to share information, seek feedback, and address problems and concerns.

These offices are essential in promoting constructive dialogue and building effective partnerships. They play a key role in the policy process, ensuring outside stakeholders are connected with the agency personnel who have jurisdiction over a matter. Early and regular communication with these offices should be the foundation of an effective state-federal relationship.

2.         Know which agency to contact

Federal agencies are organized in distinct ways that influence how an agency can provide assistance and who within the agency is the best point of contact. While it can be tempting to contact senior officials immediately, this can be less effective than working through district or regional offices. Many senior positions, especially those that are appointed by the president, turn over frequently and agency regulations and policy may sharply limit their influence on routine matters. It is usually best practice to approach local personnel before approaching senior decision-makers. This can be particularly true if your problem or issue spans agency jurisdictions, allowing you to find the right person in the shortest time frame.

Career civil servants are an invaluable ally in advancing your preferred policy outcome or ensuring the effective administration of your program or grant. With senior personnel in their posts for an average of three years, the permanent staff of the various agencies provide the continuity and institutional knowledge necessary to successfully execute the agency’s priorities. Knowing the responsibilities of these civil servants is a critical part of achieving desired results.

3.         Know how to approach an agency

Approaching an agency may seem simple, but doing so without a full appreciation of the rules, statutes and internal policies that guide their decision-making could slow or even prevent a successful outcome. Most agencies have strict procedures for interacting with state leaders and knowing and appreciating these constraints is critical to contacting the right office or person who can address your concerns.

Approaching an agency in a constructive manner should be the default mode and is more likely to result in a mutually beneficial conclusion. Think twice before threatening congressional intervention or litigation as your first step–doing so could derail your request before it even gets going. Remember an agency’s mission is to serve the public and a successful resolution of your issue or concern is in their interest as well as yours.

While the outcome can never be assured, engaging federal agencies early and building constructive relationships between state leaders and their federal partners can pay dividends later. Taking a strategic and deliberate tack towards the intergovernmental relationship can give you an advantage in interacting with federal agencies, now and in the future. These tips can help shape your federal engagement strategy and promote a sustainable state-federal partnership.

Click here for contact information for intergovernmental affairs liaison offices in key federal agencies