Lt. Gen. Bob Flowers, who commanded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 2000 to 2004 and is now retired, tells a humorous anecdote about a Mississippi landowner in the mid-1990s who was especially impatient about a future flood-protection project. Flowers was commander of the Mississippi Valley Division and agreed to meet with him.

"We had just received authorization for the project, and I told him I would request an appropriation of $28 million, which would allow the Corps to proceed," he said. "The gentleman then reached in his pocket, pulled out his checkbook and wrote me a check for $28 million." Not wanting to become tomorrow's front-page news, Flowers wisely returned the check and explained the Corps' process for funding civil-works projects.

That anecdote is a reminder that the Corps of Engineers has clear rules to follow, and, as with all federal agencies, it is constrained by law, policy and regulation. Outside parties who work with the Corps but do not understand the Corps' operating limits can make common mistakes that lead to significant problems, including delays in decisions and failure to attain otherwise reachable goals. Project sponsors and permit applicants can be frustrated for years because of their lack of understanding of federal responsibilities and limitations.

Federal regulatory policy and processes can be complex. In many ways, they are seen as "bureaucratic," but that is usually a result of procedures to ensure the Corps prevails in potential litigation.

During nearly 20 years of working with the Corps on active duty and in the private sector, I have seen frustrated permit applicants, project sponsors and stakeholders respond in ways that hurt their cause.

Common Errors

One of the most common errors involves misunderstanding the constraints of established rules and procedures the Corps must observe. Failing to appreciate laws, regulations and decision authority can waste huge amounts of time and money as you deal with the Corps. Never try to push the leaders into areas outside their purview.

Another crucial mistake is to fight rather than listen. I've seen many people approach the Corps with a mix of hubris, naïveté and combativeness. Yes, the Corps can sometimes be wrong, but threatening correspondence and general disrespect rarely succeed and usually halt meaningful progress. It is far better to use a compelling rationale and transparency, sequentially raising your issue to higher-level leaders as necessary. Then, Corps leaders can develop a mutually beneficial solution.

Still another misstep is to ignore the action officer and field personnel. As in any organization, many Corps staff are experienced, some are new, and some are set in their ways, but most are overworked. To succeed, you must work with them and treat them as partners. If you have a disagreement, inform them that you would like to present your case to their supervisor and invite the Corps field agent to participate.

Think twice about approaching senior decision-makers before exhausting options at the field and district offices. Before approaching the Corps, some people try to kick-start an issue with Congress in the hope of bringing pressure on the Corps. That tactic often backfires. Congress usually chooses not to intervene, and you are left with ill will from the beginning.

When you ask for help from any senior federal official, especially in Congress, he or she will seek an answer from the Corps. Going around the Corps usually increases the chances for an undesired answer. At that point, in order to succeed, you will need to turn that answer around, which is tough.

Finally, don't forget to elicit support from other stakeholders before approaching the Corps. The more public support you can generate early in the process, the more you help your project. Relying on the Corps to be an advocate for your side is a mistake. You must shoulder this burden, and more work early on will save time later.

There is no way to guarantee success. But with knowledge, patience and especially respect for the Corps' processes, viable solutions are almost always possible. 

Formerly the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Don Riley is now senior vice president at Dawson & Associates, Washington, D.C., which advises clients dealing with federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He can be reached at 202-289-2060.