21 – Inundated and manipulated, or respected and influential. How do your councillors feel?

“Politics is the answer that a liberal democratic society has given to the (analytically unresolvable) question of what things should be produced for collective purposes with public resources”.

I was reading this quote from Mark H. Moore (Creating Public Value, p.54) and I thought it might be worth discussing some of the issues relevant to the sometimes uneasy relationship between politicians and the administration in local government. Politicians have a tough job to do. In Victorian local government, the job is made harder for several reasons that are worth some consideration.

Councillors are volunteers. They receive what is effectively a stipend for their many hours of work in representing their constituents. They may have no political experience or skills when elected. They often don’t know the other councillors elected with them and have no relationship with them. If they do, it could be because they have competed with them at previous elections. Often, councillors are elected who have diametrically opposed platforms – they believe their mandate is to achieve the opposite outcome to another councillor.

This situation is quite different to other levels of government in Australia where politicians usually belong to a political party, they know each other, and they share political views and ambitions. If elected to govern, they work as a team towards their goals (or they should do). They are also much more likely to have political skills or experience (sometimes acquired as a local government councillor). They are also paid enough to enable them to dedicate their time to the role, and it is expected that they will do so.

When local government councillors are elected, they have an immediate workload – develop a City Plan within 6 months, approve contracts outside the CEO’s delegation, etc. At the same time, they are learning about the responsibilities of their role – conflicts of interest, meeting procedure, the Local Government Act. And it goes on. Imagine starting a new job (which, by the way, is in addition to your current full time job) and having to learn how to do it while you do it in front of a public audience. It is worth remembering that the public nature of a councillors work is a key factor in the decisions they make.

The skills and abilities of individual councillors and the dynamics of the group are critical to the performance of a council. You often hear people saying that the councillors should ‘act more as a team’; however, a council cannot always function as a team. In fact, the community often expects the opposite. They want to see councillors challenge each other and vigorously debate issues. If councillors do caucus and/or if they always agree in the council chamber, they are often criticised. The local newspapers rely on contention in the council chamber to help maintain readership and will often do their best to create it if it doesn’t occur naturally. In some ways, representative democracy works best when politicians pursue different agendas and there is conflict between ideas, so long as the debate and decision-making processes enable the best ideas to be adopted.

So what does this all mean for the council administration?

For a start, don’t expect councillors to be highly skilled in the role, willing to work cooperatively with each other, or prepared to agree with one another. Be pleased if they are, but don’t be disappointed if they aren’t. Plan for the most likely situation. Support the councillors in developing the skills required to participate in formal meetings, publicly debate and issue, and deal with the demands of their constituents.   Create processes that are tailored to councillors needs and effective in informing them about issues to enable informed and vigorous debate. Make them feel respected and empowered. Not inundated and manipulated. Allow the time required for the council to understand issues and make considered decisions.

In saying this, I am mindful of the workload of councils. They have a lot to do and limited time to do it. I have often thought that the main capacity constraint is the time available for councillors to meet and be informed or make decisions. It is a challenging ‘finite capacity’ scheduling problem and probably should be approached in that way. Ask the councillors how often they would like to meet and for how long. This will give you the available time for briefings and meetings. You now know the available capacity.

Then list the statutory decisions that the council must make (e.g. elect the Mayor, adopt the budget), estimate the decisions council must make that cannot be delegated (e.g. approve large contracts, adopt policies or strategies), and then estimate the time that the administration believes it needs with the council to discuss matters that cannot be delegated without direction (e.g. changes in the operating environment, major strategies or projects). Subtract the time required from the time available. You now have the ‘discretionary’ time available for the councillors to pursue their agendas or debate topical issues of interest to them. It won’t be as much time as they want.

Discipline with time is often not a strength of councillors and they can be inefficient in using time because of the group dynamics. But they have choices. For example, they could choose to increase the time available by meeting more often or for longer. There are limits to this, particularly for councillors in full time employment. Another option is to choose to work within the available time and accept the restrictions that this places on them in terms of choosing what is discussed. They will need to priorities as a group and in collaboration with the CEO to optimise the use of time and meet all obligations. A further option is to delegate more decision making to the CEO and the administration. This requires trust and an initial investment of time in ensuring that the policies guiding delegated decision making are acceptable to the council.

In practice, councillors are constantly under time pressure and often they have not been presented with all their options in a way that makes them feel that they are in charge and making the decision. They get swept into the business of dealing with issues and making decisions, feel under pressure to make decisions (sometimes with political consequences), and their trust and confidence in the administration is eroded. Resolving the problem then becomes much harder.

Councillors are asked to make tough decisions under difficult circumstances. Be reasonable in your expectations and plan to support them in ways that meet their need to feel respected and influential.

Parkinson

Moore, Mark 1995. Creating Public Value.

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