Monday, December 7, 2009

My Road Trip to Austin

As fate would have it, on the same day that Johnice Woods was leading a road trip to Austin to look at Foundation Communities’ permanent, supportive housing projects (see her blog on December 3), I also had to go to Austin. My trip was less fun. I needed to attend a couple of meetings with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA to those of us who build affordable housing).

I know that it can be difficult and frustrating to deal with governmental entities (after all, I’ve been a lawyer for 25 years), but I’ve found that if I just deal with government employees with the same courtesy and respect that I try to show to our formerly homeless tenants that things usually don’t work out that badly.

It is amazing how easy it is to forget than when you deal with the government that you aren’t really dealing with some monolithic entity like the Capitol (that’s the Texas Capitol in the picture). You are dealing with a person.

Granted, the person you are dealing with is probably forced to ensure compliance with a whole bunch of laws and rules that he or she doesn’t fully understand, and you barely understand at all, but that’s not the person’s fault. Laws and rules are hard to write so they apply fairly to everyone; they go out of date; they can be confusing—sometimes to the point of being impossible to understand.

The legislature, composed of people you and I voted for (or against), write the laws and people working for the government have to do the best they can with what they’ve got. Very few people take a job with the government because they like enforcing pointless rules. Most likely they wanted to serve the public (and you and I are part of the public, right?). It is also likely that government employees are frustrated because they can’t serve the public as well as they would like to.

When you deal with a problem with the government, you don’t want to be defensive or belligerent or difficult. Those types of attitudes don’t bring out the best in anyone. You want to lessen their frustration, not increase it. The best approach is to make the person that you are dealing with an ally. Remember, government employees probably know the rules much better than you do and almost every one of them wants to do good. If you explain what you want to achieve and work with them then they usually will help you figure out some way, under the rules, to do most of what you want to do.

That doesn’t mean they can break the rules or even bend them, but any good lawyer will tell you that there are multiple interpretations of any law and that sometimes you can achieve the end you are working towards in one way, perhaps less obvious, when you can’t follow the most straightforward path.

That was pretty much the case in my meetings with TDHCA. We couldn’t do exactly what we wanted to do under the rules, but we could do something else pretty close that let us accomplish most of our goals. Nobody joins the Housing Department to prevent people from having homes. Start by believing people (and government employees are people too) will help you and very often they will.

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