Many municipalities embrace the council-manager model, where the council is the governing body setting overarching directions and policies, and the manager (and the rest of the administration) is responsible for execution, operations, and the details.

In a perfect world, there is a fine line between the council and the manager, and they collaborate, complementing and supporting each other. However, sometimes there are examples where the council focuses on operational issues, or on their own electoral districts, showing little interest in other areas of the community, or they are divided or even polarized on issues. In cases like these, the lines of responsibility blur: little or no direction is given to the manager; conflicting instructions are given to the manager and administration, resulting in confusion; and there is no way to address and resolve community concerns or issues.

How can you build a collaborative and complementary relationship between the council and yourself, so that the council operates at the strategy and policy level, where they can provide the most value to the administration and the community? Here are three questions to ask yourself, along with a few tips, to help you create a more effective and positive dynamic.

1. Do Members of the Council Understand the Context?

Your community just had an election. What was the turnover on your council? How many of them are new to municipal politics and to the role of being a “director” on the “board” of a public sector organization? In the last municipal election in Edmonton, of the 13 seats available, five were new members of the city council. Each had varying degrees of governing experience. The administration hosted a series of orientation sessions for all members, not just the new ones, featuring strategic issues facing the city. We began with the overarching strategy. Through conversation exploration, all councilors increased their understanding of the municipal context and their roles in those issues.

2. What Is the Council’s Role in Developing the Strategy?

Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs1 as an analogy, members of any council also have different needs. The “basic needs” include ensuring compliance, reviewing financial reports, and managing performance of the manager. Developing and approving the strategic plan (the strategy) represents the higher-order, “fulfilling needs.”

Research by McKinsey involving 772 directors in private sector organizations found that directors who undertake “the basic” functions versus undertaking the higher-impact functions (i.e., fulfilling functions) report their activities have a low to moderate impact on their companies.2 While similar research hasn’t been done in the public sector, we did have an opportunity to test this in Edmonton when the council developed its strategic plan. To help meet their “fulfilling needs,” it was important to engage council throughout the strategy development process. Here are a few examples of the touch points where we leveraged opportunities for councilors to be involved and add value:

Setting the direction. In an earlier article, a funnel approach was described that allows the council to create and approve the future state of the city.3

Making the decision. The strategic plan outlines the collective vision of the community, not just the administration’s. Therefore, approving the strategy is one of the most important decisions any council makes.

Prioritization. If everything is important, then nothing really matters. Setting and approving the administration’s corporate business plan helps outline priorities for the next four years to achieve the community’s (and council’s) 10-year strategic plan.

Oversight. Annual progress reports were reviewed with the council. Measures with high-risk results were shared in detail to explain the performance and to discuss improvement actions.

The council played an integral role in the strategy development and reporting processes. While it is still too early to conclude the ultimate impact of their involvement, the administration’s approach was often publicly praised by councilors.

3. Do Members of Your Council Think and Act Like Owners?

Members of the council are elected officials representing the will of the community. By default, the strategic plan, a plan for your community, is also their plan. So it is important for them to think and act like owners to ensure the long-term viability and prosperity of the community.

What constitutes the mindset of being an owner? In addition to having the passion to serve the community and take responsibility for community issues and solutions, it also includes the following three components that are usually overlooked:

 Promote and partner.

The local government plays an integral role in building the community, but the role sometimes varies depending on the issue. Having the owner mindset while promoting means communicating the strategic plan actively with other public or private organizations and promoting shared outcomes, while partnership explicitly means the local government does not have to take the driver’s seat in all community issues. It is okay to collaborate, to support, and to enable by focusing on shared outcomes and on where the local government can add the most value.

Take a community perspective.

Elected officials are elected by electoral districts. By nature they represent those districts. But often they also make decisions that affect the entire community, as in the case of the strategic plan for the entire municipality. Having the owner mindset means wearing two hats, and knowing which one is the right one at the right moment. They can only own the community plan by taking on the community perspective.

Be disciplined.

Being disciplined is about having the courage to say “yes” to projects, services, or programs that are unpopular in your community; and/or say “no” to projects, services, or programs that are inconsistent with the intentions of the strategy. Here in Edmonton we saw councilors leverage various means to communicate on a controversial decision. By using evidence, councilors were able to demonstrate the long-term value and importance of building and extending the light rail transit system, recognizing the short-term challenges identified by the community. This project was a key strategic action within the strategic plan, providing a sound platform for moving forward, despite objections in some quarters.

Managers, It’s Really Up to You

You are the manager of your organization, a career public servant. Over the course of your career, you have worked your way up, likely in a few different organizations. The bottom line is that you are informed and educated on issues and you take a holistic (community) perspective. It is really up to you to take an active role in shaping your council’s role and effectiveness.

Developing the strategy has always been complex and it becomes more so with your council’s increased involvement. Yet this form of strategy development, when done well, is invaluable. It leads to clearer strategies with greater buy-in and ownership from your elected officials and offers an opportunity to strengthen the council-manager relationship.