Building a strong partnership between staff and council is essential to effective municipal management. In many instances this lack of harmonization is caused by lack of agreement on the defined roles for both staff and council members. When council “snoopervises” staff or gets deep into operations, or when staff sets public policy and establishes community priorities, the distinction between the two is blurred. This often sets up a vicious circle of ever eroding trust and teamwork that spirals downward.
The problem can be exacerbated by a council or councilors who are strong, influential, and sometimes autocratic. Strong council members may try to circumvent the rest of council and attempt to personally direct staff in fulfilling their own or constituent agendas. This polarizes and increases conflict between council and staff. And it often causes the municipality to “urgently gallop off in all four directions” leaving staff thoroughly frustrated and confused.
Council and staff members are both responsible for recognizing the issue and working to resolve it. With council membership changing every four years, it is difficult to form a lasting relationship between council and municipal staff. That’s compounded by management teams with weak priority setting discipline and poor role clarity inside the organization. This leads to ineffective coordination across departments creating silos, process problems, and a disjointed management team. Staff then appears disorganized to council. So stronger council members may step into operational issues in attempts to help their constituents (especially the most vocal ones) navigate the municipal maze.
Gaps Aren’t Bridged by Waiting for the Other Side to Start
One municipal management team I was facilitating through a leadership, strategy, and planning process was very angry about the new council. The council had been elected on a reformation platform. They were micromanaging by getting into all kinds of details as they made a number of big changes to the municipality’s operations, services, and costs. Our workshop conversations were all about how council wouldn’t let management do their jobs. Whenever new ideas for change and improvement emerged, someone would bitterly scoff at it and declare “council would never go for that.” The conversation drifted into the larger realm of the stupidity of political interference and how difficult it was to manage in an environment where the media was constantly prowling for examples of inept management to reinforce negative public perceptions.
We talked about how cynicism isn’t leadership. Leaders bring hope and possibilities. We discussed how real leadership means taking responsibility to navigate through circumstances for which they are not responsible. We looked at how much easier it is to point fingers or throw up our hands and quit trying until “they” get their act together. We talked about how life in public organizations is full of maddening political interference. It’s called democracy. Would anyone in the room prefer the alternative?
As we challenged this “Pity City” victim thinking in our discussions, the group began to change its tone and started to talk about what could be (“let’s get off the Bitter Bus at Frown Town and head back toward navigating our way through the challenges”). We began sorting out what issues and ideas could be directly controlled, couldn’t be controlled at all, and what could be influenced. We brainstormed, clustered ideas together, set priorities, debated alternatives, and agreed on action plans. We got on with it. Two years later, acting on these plans, the municipality had made huge strides forward in changing and improving their organization despite the obstacles, handicaps, and problems. It’s called leadership.
A Strategy for Bridging the We/They Gap
1. Agree There Is A Problem
Each side, council and staff, need to agree that there is a gap in their working relationship and how the municipality is being managed. The subtle and draining effects of a trust and teamwork problem may need to be highlighted. Perhaps the gap was one of the major contributors to a recent crisis. Or maybe knowing that other highly regarded municipal councils and management staff are getting along more smoothly shows the need for us to improve.
2. Seeing Both Sides of the Gap
This is where a third party can really help – and I’ll admit to some bias on this point! Confidential interviews, observing open and in camera council-staff meetings, surveys, and such can scope out the extent and shape of the issues. How are the issues affecting the municipalities’ ability to deliver services? What should council and staff keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to close the gap?
3. Agree on the Issues and Opportunities
Another municipal council and senior management group I worked with came together for a weekend retreat with these objectives (based on the input gathered from step #2):
- Strengthen trust and teamwork between council and administration
- Clarify roles and responsibilities of council and administration
- Establish a foundation/process for priority setting, planning, and budgeting
We openly discussed the perceptions and data gathered from both sides, brainstormed potential action plans, reviewed model roles and responsibilities documents from other municipalities, agreed on what this group wanted to see, and established priorities for the coming year.
4. Get Management and Council to Strengthen Their Teams
The next step is often to get the top two levels of senior management and council to each have their own private sessions. These build upon the joint session’s goals and outcomes. Each group needs to address their own moose-on-the-table (issues that most people know have been blocking progress but haven’t been addressed), roles and responsibilities, and priorities.
5. All Together Now
Now the top two layers of management can get together with council to finalize council-staff roles and responsibilities, address joint moose-on-the-table, and set priorities. Ongoing improvement programs (such as leadership training), reviewing/assessing processes, core values, meeting and operational ground rules, and the like should also be established with action plans and follow-up dates.
Understanding Each Other
With many trust and teamwork gaps, each side often doesn’t understand the other’s perspective. Management staff can have the unrealistic expectation that council should act as a team. But many council members have individual agendas that correspond to the area they represent. They may even have been elected on a slate of reform or “getting control of city hall.” Staff need to take their direction from council as a whole, not individual members. Sometimes outspoken or outrageous behavior that would not work in a staff setting is rewarded by the electorate (think Ralph Klein). We may not think it’s fair or right, but that’s politics.
On the other hand, council may have little idea of the havoc their behavior is causing throughout administration. Many don’t realize that other members are dealing with individual operating issues and drifting away from council’s policy setting, planning, and priority setting roles. Their frustration, comments, or questions of staff can come across as disrespectful and questioning their competence. That needs to be fed back to council and perhaps council members privately and constructively confronted with their behavior and its impact on staff morale and effectiveness.
It’s hard to see the picture when you’re inside the frame. Gaps between council and management staff generally develop gradually without much notice. Like moose-on-the-table they are often ignored or even considered normal. Every leadership group can benefit from stepping back periodically for an objective look at their situation. As “we/they gaps” widen, they diminish effectiveness and create communication problems. Municipal leadership groups can dramatically improve their effectiveness by recognizing and bridging their gaps to work together for the good of communities they serve.