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What It Is


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To deny that politics has a role in decision processes is to deny reality. Politics plays an integral role, but it is not the only influence on a decision.



navigate in the page--What It Is And Does

Political players are the same as every other participant . Keep them informed and consider their constraints and concerns as you would anyone else's.

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(How you know when your ideas count.)

Politics* is a catch-all term for the interactions of people and institutions (e.g., voters, special interest groups, elected representatives, and government). Take a bunch of diverse viewpoints and priorities, mix in persuasion, consent, and power, and you have the game of politics.

Every group involved in the decision process plays politics: the professional politicians (e.g., Administration and Congress), Reclamation decisionmakers (e.g., Commissioner, Regional Directors, and Area Managers), technical experts (both internal and external), and the public (e.g., interest groups and organizations.) Each group or organization plays external politics to promote its agenda and mission. Within each group, individuals and subgroups play internal politics to get what they want or what they see as vital to improve their organization or the human condition.

Yet this game is far more than a simple game of control and power. Politics channels the values* and priorities* of every group so that the solution is workable not only technically, but socially. Political realities form a reality check by asking:

  • Will people consent to and continue to use the solution when it is implemented?


  • Will anyone object so strenuously that the process becomes stymied?


  • Will this process support or undermine other processes?


  • Is the problem great enough and the solution viable enough to risk investing in?



navigate in the page--Working With Politics

Consider the political culture when building working relationships. Is information given formally or informally ? Who contacts people? When, how, and why are contacts made? Work within the culture to build a credible reputation as a reliable data source.


The best technical solution will fail if people do not support it. Thus, support must be considered to develop a workable solution. The decisionmakers and political players consider the acceptability or public support factors along with the technical information and analyses to:

  • Communicate with their constituents and supporters
  • Determine if a politically acceptable solution is workable
  • Determine if a technically workable solution is supportable

Communicating with political players to determine what their concerns are and working with those issues as you would any other issue is essential. Continuous, interactive communication will open up the "black box" of political games and help prevent power plays based on misunderstandings and second guessing. For example, an elected official may not be as likely to side with the first constituent who walks in the door if he or she already understands the problem, its context, and the actions being taken to reach a solution. Conversely, if a technical team knows why an elected official favors an alternative, they will be more likely to examine that alternative or suggest other means of achieving the same underlying goal.

Political factors can place constraints on defining a problem and finding a solution in much the same way as technical factors. Funding and authorization shape the scope of your study. The difficulty comes when people ignore or second-guess what a political player wants. If people perceive that a certain player is placing constraints on a study that actually are not there, then the process can quickly go off track. Be sure that you communicate directly with all levels of politicians from the highest to the lowest and understand their perspectives. Directly involve the highest levels at appropriate points in the decision process.

At times, decision processes may overlook political or technical factors. This omission may cause you to miss solutions, skip analyses, and lose credibility or support. Determine what factors are missing and make sure that the imbalance is real rather than a myth-truth or false perception by communicating with everyone involved.


Technical Approaches

A legitimate mission does not bestow the right to shoot down anyone impeding that mission. Rather, it carries the obligation to listen to opposing points of view.

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(How to test the waters)

Technical experts approach the problem logically. They determine what would be the best technical solution using a methodological, data-oriented, scientific approach. Personal, professional integrity is often seen as the highest value of Reclamation employees.

Technical experts exercise this integrity by:

Performing objective analyses.
Technical experts are not expected to skew analyses to support a political decision. Doing this would ultimately undermine professional and agency credibility because someone out there will know what is really going on and challenge the process.
Getting comprehensive analyses.
Include diverse viewpoints and technical disciplines. Ensure that related and affected issues are examined at an appropriate level of detail . You may need to include information relevant to the study which might be politically unpopular. The interrelationship between disciplines and interdependencies of analyses are often more important than the individual analysis.
Exercising professional judgment*.
Technical experts use experience and education to go beyond set formulas and create meaningful ways of looking at problems. Subjectively modifying the methodology may be needed to make it relevant to the analysis at hand. Technical experts consider social, political, and technical factors in determining what needs to study and what methodologies to use. These considerations must be clearly and carefully documented .


Decisionmaker Approaches

The king needs to know the tide of battle has turned against him to plan a strategic withdrawal before his army becomes a fleeing mob.

Decisionmakers approach the problem from an overall perspective, waiting until all the data are in before deciding on what solution to implement. They take the overall mission and agenda into consideration to determine what would be the most workable and supportable solution. Decisionmakers exercise their integrity and support Reclamation's mission by:

Seeking objective analyses.
Objective analyses are the only way to ensure that a solution will actually work. Suggesting or even hinting that you would prefer a skewed analysis will only lessen the chances of the solution's success and increase your personal risk of failure and lost credibility.
Making balanced decisions .
Weighing the input from all sides and ensuring that you have heard from everyone helps avoid surprises later. Exercise professional and political judgment to determine which alternative best fits the needs and is the most doable. Providing and documenting the rationales for your decision will help the community deal with the decision. It may be tempting to ignore certain factors or decide "in favor" of certain groups for nonobjective reasons. However, this will eventually erode trust and support in both keeping the solution functioning and future decision processes.
Withholding prejudgments.
Decisionmakers have a lot of clout, so a tiny favorable breath for one alternative may get blown into an absolute view that the alternative is the only one you will support as a decisionmaker. Try not to influence the analyses. Clamping down on your assumptions and preferences will promote objective analyses and uncover effective solutions.


navigate in the page--Go On

Executive Summary Tour Take this car on a fast tour Consent/Consensus <----> Policy

Handyman's Tourcompass for handyman's tour Working with Partners <--->Risk

Dragon Tour wide-eyed dragon on the loose Hurdles Chart <-----> Priority








Note: These files were developed and were originally hosted at the Bureau of Reclamation, United States Department of the Interior.
I am hosting this as an archive. Contact Deena Larsen (deenalarsen AT for further information.