By Steve Bryant, ICMA-CM
To say the least, it has been a difficult year for the local government management profession in Oregon. In my 40-plus years of local government involvement here, I’m not sure that I’ve ever witnessed more troubling relationships between chief administrative officers and their elected officials, which we’ve seen covered in statewide media this past year.
From the top levels in state government to small communities, we seem to be experiencing an epidemic of sorts, manifesting itself in at least one or more of these symptoms: breach of trust, failure to communicate, role confusion, political dysfunction, and simple cronyism.
While I have a clear bias as a longtime city manager and volunteer liaison between Oregon managers and our international professional organization, ICMA, I also realize that these problems are often a two-way street. Managers and administrators understand that they serve at the pleasure of their elected officials and that they must be held accountable for their actions and the overall performance of their organization.
To that end, ICMA members, and the affiliate Oregon City and County Management Association (OCCMA) members, are held accountable by their peers to one of the most stringent Code of Ethics of any professional organization. Ask any member of OCCMA or ICMA to see a copy of that Code and they should provide it to you as a matter of pride, as well as a tool for better understanding the values that attracted them to the profession in the first place.
Somehow, I managed to survive more than 27 years as a department head and a city manager in one community while serving under eight unique mayors of extremely different political persuasions, along with numerous city councilmembers who never quite seemed to represent a unified front on most contentious issues. Indeed, I was appointed city manager on a 4-to-3 split vote and didn’t expect to enjoy a lengthy career in one place.
So, what are some lessons I learned about making difficult relationships work between managers and elected officials? Here is my quick list of the top five habits I argue are essential for both managers and elected officials to follow:
From the beginning, establish clarity on roles and expectations. From the date of hire, at the beginning of each election cycle, and at every goal-setting retreat and evaluation session, engage in a discussion on respective roles and expectations.
The foundation for these roles and expectations are usually established in the organization’s charter, ordinance, and other policy documents. It is often helpful to have this discussion facilitated by the local government attorney or other neutral party. If either the elected officials or the manager begin to intrude on the other’s agreed-upon roles, trouble has just begun and intervention steps often become necessary.
The mayor and council need to police their collective behaviors, while the manager is responsible for his or her own behavior, as well as being accountable for implementing effective personnel management.
Avoid surprises. No one likes a surprise, especially an unpleasant one. This no-surprises expectation goes both ways. Elected officials should avoid surprising staff members with critical remarks or lobbing grenades during public meetings. Concerns that officials have should first be discussed in direct conversations with the manager when those concerns arise.
Likewise, managers should inform elected officials as soon as possible regarding any significant developments involving the organization that might be newsworthy, doing this as soon as practical even if the facts will reflect poorly on the organization. There are some caveats to this practice, including matters involving sensitive personnel issues or litigation, some of which may be discussed only in a properly noticed executive session.
In any event, elected officials need to be cautious of a “kill-the-messenger” mentality when it comes to hearing bad news. Nearly every human achievement comes out of a learning experience involving adversity—embrace that fact and learn together.
Conduct regular manager evaluations. A good evaluation process has at least these elements:
- An opportunity for the manager to provide a self-evaluation and progress report on previously established goals.
- Use of an agreed-upon evaluation form with specific standards against which the manager’s performance will be measured (available online at the Knowledge Network (icma.org/kn); also check your municipal league).
- Compilation of individual councilmember remarks by an agreed-upon party, which is often the mayor or council president.
- An opportunity for the manager to review and respond to the remarks in a two-way dialogue with the council. This can be either in open or executive session at the manager’s choosing.
- Often, it can be helpful to both parties and the success of the relationship to have these evaluations facilitated by an experienced neutral party. One of the best and most helpful questions I ever heard asked by a councilmember during one of these sessions was: How are we doing in our jobs from your perspective? That question opened up a constructive dialogue.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. This habit seems so simple and so obvious. Still, communication difficulties are most often cited as the primary reason that relationships fail in both personal and professional settings.
Again, it is very much a two-way street. Managers are wise to keep elected officials updated on a regular basis with each member informed within the same time period and with the same information. Elected officials also have an obligation to initiate communication with their most important and often only employee to let him or her know how the person is doing or simply to check in.
Although it creates a public record that both sides need to be cognizant of, electronic communication can be an efficient means of frequent communication; however, nothing substitutes for at least occasional face-to-face meetings with minimal disruptions.
Row as efficiently as possible in the same direction. I highly recommend the best-selling book, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, on the University of Washington eight-oared crew that won gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It is a fascinating history lesson in the power of overcoming difficult odds through the application of goal-setting, practice, teamwork, coaching, and dedication.
The difference between high-performing organizations and mediocre or dysfunctional organizations can be illustrated in the metaphor of the eight-oared crew. Mediocre teams tend to lack focus, fail to communicate effectively with each other, have individuals who want to steer the boat in different directions, and fail to heed the prompts from the coxswain.
Dysfunctional teams might best be illustrated as the crew with eight coxswains shouting out conflicting directions and cadences to a poor single rower who is often the manager. Winning teams, on the other hand, have a common focus, demonstrate consistent application of good techniques learned through practice and coaching, and have the resolve to push through adversity to achieve success as a unified group.
News from Oregon on relationship problems between managers and elected officials can be turned into a positive outcome for other communities if we focus on basic good habits for team-building; however, it doesn’t simply happen through osmosis. These habits need to be discussed, reviewed, evaluated, and discussed again.
It can be boring news for the media when a council and staff function as a high-performing team. But apart from the media, it sure is a lot more fun and rewarding for all parties involved to be part of an organization that focuses on good relationship habits.