My previous blog post on this topic introduced the readers to the ongoing need for a thorough, well-planned orientation for members of council. I took a broad brush to this theme, which likely interested some and made others feel like they had already gone past my suggested requirements. Allow me to dig a little deeper with the following 10 principles.
1. Hold your orientation session(s) within seven to 10 days of the election.
Good habits and understanding take time to percolate. Bad practices can begin almost immediately. Strike early and set the template for how the term should look if we are capable of working together.
2. Ensure that all councilmembers and senior management are invited and expected to attend.
It is a major mistake to believe that an orientation seminar is just for those who are new to council. The orientation is for everyone. We all need to be at the table to show how important we think the seminar is and to ensure that new/returning members alike are going to be treated the same.
3. “Salt” the day. Garnering interest for the orientation begins with how you advertise it.
Advise all candidates and current councilmembers that the manager will be describing the key projects that are underway and the results of the last strategic plan objectives/priorities. This is a key time to become engaged in “what should we be focusing on next year?”
4. Always begin under the assumption that your audience knows very little.
Regardless of the backgrounds cited by candidates for office, most have no idea what it means to govern a broadly based, publicly sensitive organization. Most of what you cover will be new (and quite interesting) ground.
5. Remember what this audience is expected to do (and no, it is not your job!)
The first critical mistake of many civic administrations is their misplaced focus on the wrong target. The people seated in front of you are not lined up at the job application window. They ran in order to govern—not manage!
6. Focus on two aspects: logistics and governance.
Each of these could easily consume a half day. Start with logistics, as that tends to be top of mind for many. Unfortunately, this is where many local governments begin and end. By comparison, logistics is the unimportant part; understanding governance is critical. (If you are uncertain what to cover, send me an email or wait as I may cover that in a future blog post.)
7. Prepare the governance portion as though it was you who had been elected.
What would you as a new councilmember want to learn? Elected officials will want to understand how decisions get made, whose agenda of issues takes precedence, do they get to challenge the manager or department heads, and what will take up most of their time.
8. The manager should deliver the logistics portion. The governance portion should be delivered by a facilitator.
A manager should be quite capable of leading or delivering the session on logistics. An experienced municipal facilitator (if you can afford one) would be ideal for the “good governance” segment. It is tough for a manager to be at the front of the room telling his or her boss how they are to do their jobs. If your municipality is small, consider banding together with neighboring communities for a regional seminar.
9. Describe governance and management responsibilities and processes.
Explain how decisions get made. This should not be a mystery. All councilmembers need to understand who has what authority to make what decisions and the process by which this happens. Is the mayor and council expected to be at the table when a junior staff member is hired? Who speaks to the public through social media? Who do they call if (sorry, when) there is a complaint from a resident?
10. Outline council landmines.
Communicate to councilmembers that there are various “landmines” in their new world and that being aware of these may save them embarrassment or failure later.
These principles were drafted today as we enter 2021, but are based on the past 40 years of experience with over 1,100 municipal clients. These principles are as real now as they were when I began my career.
George B Cuff, FCMC, is president of George B Cuff & Associates Ltd., based outside of Edmonton, Alberta. His firm has offered over 700 seminars on governance and good management for the past 40 years and has conducted over 400 reviews of municipalities, government departments, agencies, and not-for-profits. His background can be found on www.georgecuff.com. He has taught in the ICMA University program over the past 10 years on the topic of fatal flaws of a council-manager relationship and on the need for a solid council-manager orientation. George has a background both as a municipal manager and as a mayor elected four times serving 12 years in that capacity.