Getting along in a former backwater town
by Ken Feltman
Washington is a perfect blend of Northern hospitality and Southern efficiency.
- John F. Kennedy
The world has a crisis and Washington is at the center of efforts to resolve it. Naturally, people from all over are descending upon Washington to plead their case. Wherever they come from, the visitors are very American in one respect: They want Washington to do things the way they do them back home in, say, Zurich or Beijing.
Whether these seekers of advantage are from faraway governments, banks and businesses or from as close as New York or Charlotte, they are struggling. Most seem to insist on doing things the hard way, stubbornly trying to enter through a door marked "exit." They bring along cadres of public relations advisors, lawyers and consultants who are undoubtedly very good at getting things done somewhere else. They expect habits and methods that work in Singapore or Rio to work in Washington.
But if you were going to India and needed a tour guide, would you hire a guide who knew all about Kenya but little or nothing about India? Frustration and failure are too often the result of not understanding some fundamental principles of success in Washington.
Washington is not user friendly.
Because Washington was pretty much a backwater till the Second World War, the locals and other assorted creatures who settled here developed arcane ways of doing things. No one noticed, no one cared. Then, with the end of the war, American businesses boomed all across the country - but not in the quiet Southern town that wanted to return to the sleepy pre-war times when outsiders were mostly tourists visiting the monuments. State and local governments handled most everyday needs. The federal government had a limited role.
Commerce and finance exploded in New York. Communications boomed in New York and Los Angeles. Transportation lines spread out from Chicago. Then, not quite a year ago, Commerce, finance and communications rushed to Washington. The transit schedules are still trying to catch up. Boom time in Washington is as disorganized as the California Gold Rush. Still, like the 49ers, a few will make fortunes in today's Washington while most never find a nugget.
Washington is driven by crises and the expectation of crises.
Crises create opportunities for those who are prepared and can handle the pressure. Few people from outside Washington are prepared but many think they are. Last year, as he watched the auto companies flail and flounder, an old Washington hand said, "Sell them all short. They do not even know what they do not know." Turns out, he was right and the auto manufacturers' pushiness and arrogance got them little but negative publicity. The auto makers failed to understand a principle of crises:
In a crisis, the people with a solution are kings.
The people with their hands out are problems. In a crisis, no one wants another problem. The auto companies were too late in offering solutions. Crises have a frenzy that puts some peoples' necks beneath the blade.
Being there at the right time means being there all the time.
When everything is flying apart, who has time to call in an expert from out of town? Who can visit with an out-of-towner with yet another problem? Timing is everything. You can have your headquarters anywhere you want. But unless you are prescient when it comes to forecasting crises, you need a continuing presence in Washington or you have little chance to be there when the time is right. Even if you are there all the time, when the crisis comes you need to have a solution.
Elected officials are "broad brush" people.
So are most higher ranking appointed officials. They do not like or have time for details. They have staff for that. Deal with the staff on the mind-numbing technical stuff. Deal with high officials on their level, not yours. How do you know what level of detail they will accept? Few outsiders can detect the difference between polite patience and boredom. Insiders make a good living by knowing the tolerance levels of public officials and preventing their clients from exceeding those limits.
Washington has decentralized decision-making.
Many people in Washington make little decisions that, by themselves, seem unimportant. Those little decisions become tiny pieces of a big decision. The decision-making process can seem random and incomprehensible to the uninitiated. But insiders "read" an early decision and know how to position that decision so that it influences future decisions.
Some outsiders go right to the ultimate decision-maker. But even the boldest official likes to rely on some smaller decision, somewhere. That means no one is completely responsible for a decision.
Officials often make decisions beyond their expertise.
Do not assume that the only officials with influence over your issue or problem are those with jurisdiction. Yes, officials should limit decisions to their areas of expertise. But they often make decisions in their areas of interest, regardless of expertise. So learning who has jurisdiction and convincing them may not get you the right decision. Ask an additional question of your advisors: Who is interested in our area? If your advisors do not know, you can take comfort in the next rule:
Nothing is ever final in Washington.
Everything is always developing. Every newly enacted policy or decision triggers immediate opposition. Everything and everyone is always workable. So the work is always beginning, never ending.
This constant working and reworking drives most people crazy. They seek a final decision, victory. But Washington has no final decisions, only temporary victories or defeats that are quickly washed away by the efforts of someone else.
Never, ever feel secure.
Henry Kissinger was right: No one can be paranoid In Washington because somewhere, all the time, someone is out to get somebody, and maybe you are that somebody.
George Will said that "Washington is an enclave bordered on all sides by reality." In a future Radnor Report I will discuss how the reality beyond the enclave affects all decisions in Washington.
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