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Cultivating Stronger Relationships with your Regulatory Agencies: Why and How?

Let’s face it, working with regulators can be frustrating, confusing and, intimidating. Regulatory agencies — whether local, state, or federal — are, by law, a critical part of nearly every project; and yet, for many businesses, municipalities and individuals, the idea of picking up the phone or hitting “send” on that email causes hearts to skip a beat.

This is a common reaction, and sometimes, one not without merit. But why? Aren’t they working for you? The answer is both yes and no. The first thing to understand is that regulators are often seeing your project through several different lenses. Yes, they support the concept of jobs and economic growth, but they are also considering applicable laws, following detailed internal processes, and are often anticipating potential public and political interests. Even under the best scenario, these considerations are complicated, and can cause your project to move slower through the regulatory process than you would like. Under the worst scenario, these issues are in conflict with each other and can cause projects and regulatory decisions to grind to a halt. Unfortunately, you may not understand why it’s happening, how it got to this point, or what you can do to help get it “un-stuck”.

The good news is that there are things you can do to improve these situations now and minimize problems in the future. Often, it starts by simply improving your relationships with the regulatory agency. But what does it mean to have a positive and effective relationships with your regulatory agencies and what can you do to make that happen? Here are a few key concepts:

  • Make a plan. Develop an engagement plan and make sure your team is on-board: Who will engage with the agencies and at what level? How will you do it (calls, emails, face to face) and at what frequency?  What are the goals and do you have feedback loops to measure effectiveness and adjust if necessary?
  • Invest in the relationship. Building a productive relationship with the regulators will take both your time and willingness to be personally invested. Ideally, you’ll be building this relationship around a specific project or controversial issue (i.e., permit or enforcement action). Inevitably, you are going to run into a tough issue down the road and it will be at this point when your past efforts to build good relationships can really “pay off”.
  • Understand processes and pressures. Environmental laws are complex but the regulatory processes that the agencies follow can be downright mind-boggling! It helps to develop some basic understanding of these processes. Not only will it provide you some context but it may also help identify opportunities to proactively assist the agencies work through particularly sticky issues and potential roadblocks.
  • Build trust. Do you know what to expect from the regulator? Do they know what to expect from you? Building trust over time will help minimize conflict down the road. When issues do pop up, mutual trust will help resolve those issues much faster. Building trust requires honest and respectful communications, follow through on commitments, and minimal surprises!
  • Know when (and where) to escalate. At some point, you may need to talk to someone higher up at the regulatory agency…and that’s ok. However, there’s a right way and a wrong way when considering going “over-the-head” of the person you have been trying to build a relationship with.
  • Connect with the experts. The most effective consultants and contractors should have a proven history of productive relationships with local, state and federal regulatory agencies. They should be able to help translate your goals and connect and build your relationships with the regulators. Make sure you understand their history, philosophy and capabilities as you consider your next consultant.

Building positive and effective relationships with your regulators is an investment. It requires that your entire team understands and is aligned on your goals and expectations. It also takes a commitment in time and resources – both to create and execute your engagement plans with the regulatory agencies. This will require some out-of-the-box thinking as you probably haven’t considered and budgeted for this in the past.

Our last recommendation? Start now. The investment will pay off down the road and will be especially fruitful as you work through your next challenging permit or enforcement negotiations with your local, state or federal regulatory agency.

In the next blog, we’ll be talking about some of fundamental differences between local, state and federal regulatory agencies and some specific tips to build better relationships with each.

Jeff Smith Director, Environmental Compliance & Permitting