Political Acumen Toolkit Image

CAMA is excited to be participating in the inaugural edition of International Digest and we hope that sharing Canada’s best practices will be beneficial for all countries.

Recognizing the importance of political understanding in the role of senior municipal administrators in local government, the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA) prepared a Political Acumen Toolkit.  This toolkit will strengthen political acumen as a core competency for CAOs, their direct reports, and the next generation of municipal leaders.  This online resource can be found at politicalacumen.camacam.ca and will support municipal administrators around the world.

Political acumen is not any one thing but is a combination of competencies that will serve a CAO and other senior administrators in a variety of ways. Political acuity needs to be acquired and practiced. While it may come naturally to some individuals, others will need to learn it through experience, observation, and talking to colleagues they trust and respect.

Political acumen requires situational knowledge across a diversity of municipal landscapes. However, there are some truths that apply throughout. Here are the top 10 ways to demonstrate political acuity:  

  1. Integrity: Maintaining your integrity is crucial to achieving success as a CAO. This rings true in all of your actions as well as supporting ethical behavior on the part of your elected officials.
  2. Roles: Council, CAO, and other senior administrators must all have a clear grasp of their role in municipal governanceCouncil orientations, training, and mentorship are key to understanding the boundaries and mitigating the risk that comes with blurred lines between roles.
  3. Priorities: As a CAO, your actions should be aligned with those of council. Take the time to learn what council’s priorities are, and do not be afraid to clarify if needed.
  4. TrustEstablishing trust is a cornerstone of leadership and lays the foundation of political acumen. Trust is not a given and must be earned through your actions.
  5. Respect: Even if you do not agree with your political leaders or the decisions they make, you must always respect them and demonstrate this respect to your staff and the public.
  6. Transparency: Maintain a culture of no surprises and no secrets between you and your council. Being transparent and honest is vital to building relationships that will support your career now and into the future.
  7. Relationship-building: Work at building rapport at all levels. Whether it is your staff, your council, your municipal neighborsthe media, or interactions at the provincial or federal levels, relationship-building goes a long way toward achieving the goals of your municipality.
  8. Neutrality: Leave the politics to the politicians. The role of CAO is to remain neutral on issues while offering the best advice possible to the elected officials making the decisions and providing leadership to other municipal staff.
  9. Communication: Communication is not only what you say but what you hear. Take the time to listen to council, residents, and other stakeholders to truly understand where they are coming from and be honest in the information you provide. Be open and respectful in your discussions with council and never take anything personally.
  10. Feedback: Do not be afraid to ask for feedback. Meeting with your council formally and informally can help ensure you are aligned with the strategic plan they have set for the municipality. Finding a mentor can also be a valuable resource for working through challenging situations and having someone to go to for support.

The Political Acumen Toolkit features many case studies from CAOs across Canada on a variety of political acumen topics. These stories reflect key learnings from the Political Acumen Toolkit and provide further insight into the role political acumen plays in the day-to-day dealings of local government, as well as how to use your acuity to deal with unexpected situations. Here are just a few examples. Click on the links for the full study:

  • Mayor Intimidation: A mayor requested that a CAO (who was new in the role) join him to meet with a developer out of the office. At the meeting, the developer expressed complaints about the development application and approvals process. The mayor wanted the development to happen and without all of the bureaucratic nonsense associated with it. The CAO felt pressured by the mayor to approve the development application without it going through its due process. Location: British Columbia Topics Covered: Ethics, Council-CAO Relationship
  • Council-Staff Relations: A mayor received information from somebody about a certain staff member that was very uncomplimentary.  The mayor walked into the CAO’s office and demanded that they address the issue that was purported to be true.  When the CAO asked the mayor what evidence there was for this and who she received her information from, the mayor’s response was she was told the matter “in confidence."  The CAO argued that they were not prepared to talk to the “offending” employee without properly validating the complaint with the person who made the allegation.  However, the mayor insisted that the CAO should act on it on the basis of her word, and the CAO refused. Location: Nova Scotia Topics Covered: Ethics, Council-Staff Relationships
  • Falsified Expense Account: The CAO suspected that the mayor was falsifying his expense account. This saga carried on for many months and created a political firestorm that ended up with his resignation. Location: Quebec Topics Covered: Ethics, Council-CAO Relationship, Provincial-Federal Relations, Managing Media Relationships
  • Unethical Dismissal: After a council meeting was adjourned, the CAO was leaving council chambers when he noted that the five members of council were remaining at the table. He inquired as to what was going on and was informed that council was going to have a meeting to make a decision on a matter. He was told not to worry that the decision was not about his employment. A while later, the mayor went to the CAO’s office and told him that they were “firing” an employee. The mayor informed the CAO that he was comfortable with carrying out the “firing.” Location: British Columbia Topics Covered: Ethics, Council-CAO Relationship, Council-Staff Relationships
  • Persuasion from Ratepayers: A city was stuck in a period of low development growth amid rapidly rising services costs. Council was under considerable pressure, faced with either dramatic service cuts or a sharp tax rate increase to property owners. At the same time, a group of contractors who had a history of developing property in the city, as well as providing roadway maintenance and underground infrastructure services to the city, approached several councilors to complain about how "difficult" the city’s professional staff were to deal with. In particular, they identified the head of engineering and the chief building inspector as problem employees and called for their immediate removal. Location: New Brunswick​​​ Topics Covered: Ethics, Council-Staff Relationships, Resident-Ratepayer Associations
  • Council Allegations Against the Mayor: Council launched a judicial inquiry into a conflict of interest against the mayor.  The conflict centered around the mayor's role in a development project.  As a result, many of the planning and legal staff were involved in providing documents, being questioned at discovery, and testifying in front of the inquiry. The council of 12 members was divided seven against five, with a majority on this issue voting against the mayor. This caused a rift and significant tension, which became a challenge for staff to navigate on issues whether they were related to the inquiry or not. Location: Ontario  Topics Covered: Ethics, Council-Staff Relationships

Do you have questions? Want more information? Contact Jennifer Goodine, executive director, CAMA, at 1-866-771-2262, admin@camacam.ca.

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