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Preparing Councils for Their Work

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Preparing Councils for Their Work

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The legitimacy of an individual councilmember’s power comes directly from the electorate, but respect and influence cannot be presumed; they have to be earned through action. The manager’s position, however, comes from professional qualifications to manage and provide policy guidance. In contrast with members of the council, the local government manager and professional staff benefit from a long-term familiarity with issues, specialization, and technical expertise and also from an organizational structure familiar to all. As we know, linking politics and the work of a governing body with the management of government involves an ongoing set of tasks and challenges. The idea of council-manager government is that political and administrative realms can be in partnership and not dependent on the system of checks and balances that characterizes our state and federal governments, where separation of legislative and executive powers is valued. The relationship between the manager and the elected officials sets a tone for the entire local government. Although some elected officials shy away from acknowledging a team or partner relationship between and among members of council and between the council and the staff, it is critical that the professional manager prepares the council for its work. In part, this takes place as the manager helps the council build its capacity to work as a body, earning respect for one another and in an effective partnership with staff. In this article, we set out some of the ways the manager can facilitate the building of council capacity.
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Public Management August 2009
24
The legitimacy of an individual councilmember’s power comes directly from
the electorate, but respect and influence cannot be presumed; they have to
be earned through action. The manager’s position, however, comes from
professional qualifications to manage and provide policy guidance. In
contrast with members of the council, the local government manager and
professional staff benefit from a long-term familiarity with issues, special-
ization, and technical expertise and also from an organizational structure
familiar to all.
As we know, linking politics and the work of a governing body with the
management of government involves an ongoing set of tasks and challeng-
es. The idea of council-manager government is that political and adminis-
trative realms can be in partnership and not dependent on the system of
checks and balances that characterizes our state and federal governments,
where separation of legislative and executive powers is valued.
The relationship between the manager and the elected officials sets a tone
for the entire local government. Although some elected officials shy away
from acknowledging a team or partner relationship between and among
members of council and between the council and the staff, it is critical
that the professional manager prepares the council for its
work.
In part, this takes place as the manager helps the coun-
cil build its capacity to work as a body, earning respect for
one another and in an effective partnership with staff. In
this article, we set out some of the ways the manager can
facilitate the building of council capacity.
Preparing Councils for
Their Work
by Julia Novak and John Nalbandian
How managers can help build
council capacity is going to
be the topic of the authors’
presentation at the Eldon
Fields Colloquium, which will
be held at ICMA’s 2009 An-
nual Conference in Montréal,
Québec, Canada, Sept. 13–16.
2009 ICMA Conference
ICMA.org/pm 25
Public Management August 2009
CENTRAL TASKS OF A
GOVERNING BODY
In a formal sense, the role of a govern-
ing body is set out in a typical state-
ment such as “the council is charged
with providing overall leadership for
the local government by enacting laws
and allocating resources for programs,
services, and activities.” Individuals
are elected by voters who, in turn,
expect the council to listen to their
concerns and address their individual
issues.
As accurate as these phrases are,
they do not fully convey the work of
the council, and they are insufficient
to help new councilors understand
what is expected of them. In fact,
short phrases only rarely capture
the council’s work. Local norms
and tradition are as important as
any charter when it comes to un-
derstanding the council’s work.
In addition, the composition of
a council can influence how the
council and the individual mem-
bers see their roles.
To be effective, councilmembers
must talk about their work, what
they think is expected of them, and
what they expect of each other.
OBSTACLES TO EFFECTIVE
GOVERNANCE
Although councils differ, three ob-
stacles to council effectiveness are
fundamental. First, councils that
are willing to deal with big issues will
have to confront conflicting political
values. These values include repre-
sentation, efficiency, social equity,
and individual rights. Choices among
values are not choices between right
and wrong, and councils searching for
“correct” answers to policy issues are
bound to become frustrated.
Second, councilors must confront
the difficult values work they are re-
sponsible for in the absence of hierar-
chy—the mayor is not the boss. How
many jobs have you had where no one
was in charge?
The third obstacle is the difference
in perspective between council and
staff—differences that are often dif-
ficult to understand because while
council and staff use the same words,
they speak a different language.
The tools we identify below are
intended to enable a willing council to
deal with difficult issues by building
council capacity. An important piece
of that capacity is an effective partner-
ship with staff.
TOOLS TO BUILD GOOD
GOVERNANCE
Adopting policy in open session where
political values are constantly collid-
ing is not for the faint at heart. What
can the manager do to prepare the
council, largely made up of amateur
politicians (no disrespect intended),
for its work?
First, we want to emphasize that
staff can help prepare the council for
its work, but the council is respon-
sible for that work, and the council
bears a good deal of responsibility for
building its own capacity. The goal is
a partnership, and staff members who
take too much responsibility for the
council’s work may actually create a
dependency rather than an effective
partnership.
In our collective 50 years of expe-
rience working with and for elected
and appointed local government
professionals, we have seen several
practices that are effective tools in
managers’ tool kits to help overcome
the barriers to council and staff work-
ing effectively.
ORIENTATION
Ideally, the orientation process begins
before the election, when individuals
declare their candidacy for council.
The manager’s opportunity to prepare
them begins then: open the doors of
city hall to the candidates and provide
them with nonconfidential correspon-
dence and copies of agenda materials.
After the election, meet individually
with those elected to find out their
concerns; offer to allow them to ex-
plore areas of community business of
particular interest.
As soon as practical after the elec-
tion, the manager should arrange for
a full orientation for new members
of the governing body—invite the
continuing members to attend
as well—and provide them with
“Government 101.” Brief them on
current issues, the status of long-
range plans and capital projects,
and the budget process. In its ori-
entation, Shoreline, Washington,
covers both the basics of members’
service on the council as well as
specific government projects (see
the box on page 26).
Provide tours of operational
facilities. Let them see the garage
where the city cares for its fleet
and even the shop where it stores
and maintains its lawnmowers. A
tour of water and wastewater treat-
ment facilities is fascinating and
allows the behind-the-scene work-
ers who do the city’s business every
day to shine.
But also remember that if staff pre-
pare the agenda for the orientation,
the agenda likely will be based on
what staff members think the council
needs to know in order to be effective.
Every new councilmember must face
two crucial questions: How do I get
my issues on the political agenda of
other councilmembers and staff? How
do I influence other councilmembers
effectively? Rarely do staff-developed
orientations include discussion of
these kinds of questions.
That is why it is essential to put
new members in contact with former
councilmembers who are regarded
as exemplars and, if possible, make
It is essential to put
new members in
contact with former
councilmembers
who are regarded
as exemplars and,
if possible, make
them part of the
orientation.
Public Management August 2009
26
them part of the orientation. Im-
portantly, these exemplars should
represent a range of styles so new
members can become acquainted
with and relate to at least one for-
mer councilmember.
RETREATS AND GOAL
SETTING
During a council retreat, probably the
most important activity of the govern-
ing body is spending time articulat-
ing what it wants to accomplish, as
a body, during its time in office. The
most effective councils hold annual
sessions where goals are revisited, up-
dated, and validated.
These sessions, like the orienta-
tion, should be seen as annual events
so there is no debate on whether
they should take place. Goal setting
occurs most effectively in a retreat
environment where the entire day
(or two) is set aside for the purpose
of reaching consensus on council
priorities. Having department heads
attend these discussions provides
staff with important context for un-
derstanding the “why” behind the
priorities.
As part of setting goals, the council
and staff should come to an agree-
ment on how the council wants to
be informed about progress on goals
and objectives. During the retreat the
council can also focus on improv-
ing working relationships within the
council by discussing norms and be-
havior and exploring personal styles
in a guided discussion with a trainer
and facilitator.
An exploration of styles should not
be minimized. It is important because
all councilmembers are equals. The
unintended consequence of equal-
ity is that no one has the power and
authority to resolve conflict or set or
legitimize plans and direction.
In the absence of the hierarchical
structure we are all accustomed to day
in and day out, a gathering of equals
who are dealing with problems for
which there are no correct answers
highlights differences in ways indi-
vidual members exercise influence,
how much information they need, the
extent to which they see themselves
as a group, how they deal with con-
flict, and even the kinds of concerns
individually they think are worth
considering.
REGULAR ONE-TO-ONE
MEETINGS
Although the formal relationship is
between the manager and the coun-
cilmembers as a body, nurturing in-
dividual relationships is an important
component of creating a productive
working relationship between council
New Councilmember Orientation
Shoreline, Washington
Part I: Nuts & Bolts
1. Council meetings
• OpenPublicMeetingsAct
• E-meetings/publicrecords
2. Council rules and procedures
• Varioustypesofcouncilmeetings:Businessmeeting,studysession,work-
shop dinner meeting, and executive sessions
• Agendaprocess
• Firstcouncilmeeting:Swearing-inceremonyandelectionofmayor
3. Council-staff communications
4. Council office
• Councilcorrespondenceprocess:E-mail,letters
• Businessexpensepolicy
• Miscellaneous:Councilvoicemail,Website,e-mail,payroll,healthbenefits,
conferences, council photo
Part II: Council Goals, Boards & Commissions, Projects, Issues
5. Council goals
• Councilgoal-settingprocess:Retreat
• 2008–09councilgoals/councilworkplan
• CouncilWorkPlanquarterlyreports
6. Council boards and commissions
• CouncilofNeighborhoods
• LibraryBoard
• ParksBoard
• EconomicDevelopmentAdvisoryCommittee
• PlanningCommission
7. Projectsandemergingissues
• Long-rangefinancialplanning
• CityHallproject
• PointWells
• Auroracorridorproject
• Parksbondprojects
8. Wrap-up
• Additionalinformation/briefings/tours?
ICMA.org/pm 27
Public Management August 2009
and staff. At a minimum, the manager
should have one-to-one time with
members of council at least once
each quarter. Many managers visit
much more frequently with individual
councilmembers.
This is especially important when
the council itself is divided. If the
manager meets only with members of
the majority, the manager plays into
the perception that the staff is sup-
porting the majority at the expense of
the minority. Although the manager
is bound to implement the policy ad-
opted by the majority, the relationship
the manager develops must be with
the body as a whole as well as with
each individual who makes up the
body.
Local government managers clearly
are spending more time than ever with
councilmembers. What is not clear is
the changing role of department heads
in light of the new allocation of the
manager’s time. It used to be a bonus
to find department heads who could
understand the council’s politics and
the work of the manager’s office.
Today, that need has become im-
perative because the manager does
not have sufficient time to spend with
department heads.
APPROPRIATE ACCESS TO
DEPARTMENT HEADS
Having the council interact directly
with staff can be a touchy issue for
some managers, but it is a direct
consequence of managers having to
spend more time on the politics of the
jurisdiction. The primary council-staff
relationship should be with the man-
ager, but allowing councilmembers
access to department heads can actu-
ally build trust between the council
and the manager.
Open dialogue between the man-
ager and the department heads about
how that interaction happens and
what is shared back with the man-
ager ensures that the manager is
properly informed and the council is
well served. Shoreline, Washington,
has developed written guidelines for
council-staff communications that
strike an appropriate balance (see the
box on this page).
DOCUMENTED BUSINESS
PRACTICES
The day-to-day business of govern-
ment involves responding to corre-
spondence, e-mails, and constituent
requests. Establishing a practice of
how to handle these items ensures
fair treatment among all members of
the governing body. Some jurisdic-
tions call these rules of procedure,
and they are adopted by resolution
and govern how the council con-
ducts itself.
Topics include everything from
receiving and responding (or not) to
public comment at public meetings
and when it is appropriate to use
official letterhead, to how items get
placed on agendas and how many
logo shirts each councilmember re-
ceives—and everything in between.
Council-Staff Communications Guidelines
Shoreline, Washington
Governance of a city relies on the cooperative efforts of elected officials, who
setpolicyandpriorities,andcitystaff,whoanalyzeproblemsandissues,make
recommendations, and implement and administer the council’s policies. Here are
general guidelines to help facilitate effective communications between the city
council and city staff.
• Channelcommunicationsthroughtheappropriatecitystaff.
• Allcouncilmembersshouldhavethesameinformationwithwhichtomake
decisions.
• Dependuponthestafftorespondtocitizenconcernsandcomplaintsasfully
and as expeditiously as practical.
• Thecitycouncilsetsthedirectionandpolicy—citystaffareresponsiblefor
administrative functions and city operations.
• Inordertoprovidethecouncilwithtimelyinformation,pleasestrivetosub-
mit questions on council agenda items ahead of the meeting.
• Respectthewillofthe“full”citycouncil.
• Dependuponthestafftomakeindependentandobjectiverecommendations.
• Thecitymanagerandstaffaresupportersandadvocatesforadoptedcouncil
policy.
• Refrainfrompubliclycriticizinganindividualemployee.Criticismisdifferenti-
ated from questioning facts or the opinion of staff.
• Seekingpoliticalsupportfromstaffisnotappropriate.
THE COUNCIL MUST
MANAGE ITSELF
The manager’s job is to create oppor-
tunities for the council to be prepared
so the members can operate in an en-
vironment of mutual understanding.
Each of the steps outlined in this ar-
ticle can help create the environment
for effective governance, but there
will be exceptions.
Individuals sometimes ignore rules,
and toxic personalities sometimes cre-
ate challenges for professionals. But
do not forget—difficult personalities
on the council create a challenging
and uncomfortable environment for
the council itself. This is not just a
staff problem, and often there is no
silver bullet.
In the end, the council must man-
age its own behavior and seek compli-
Public Management August 2009
28
ance from its own members. Staff can
do only a limited amount to support
a dysfunctional council, and inviting
councilmembers to vent to the man-
ager and staff about other councilors
at worst can create an expectation
that it is the manager’s job to some-
how fix the council. That simply can-
not happen.
BENEFITS OF LEADERSHIP
In their training video, Leadership: An
Art of Possibility, Ben and Rosamond
Zander talk about the art of leadership
as creating a possibility to live into
rather than a standard to live up to.
Preparing the council for its work lays
the groundwork for establishing an
environment where the council-staff
partnership can flourish and good
governance can be supported by good
management. PM
Julia Novak, ICMA-CM, is regional vice
president, Management Partners, Inc., Cin-
cinnati,Ohio,andis aformercitymanager
(jnovak@managementpartners.com). John
NalbandianisafacultymemberinthePub-
licAdministration Department attheUni-
versityofKansas,Lawrence,Kansas.Heisa
formercouncilmember and mayorin Law-
rence,Kansas(nalbandj@gmail.com).
In the May 2009 issue of PM,readerswereaskedtosubmittheir“two-
minuteelevatorspeech”thatexplainstosomeonethey’vejustmetor
thathelpsacitizenquicklyunderstandwhattheydoforaliving.Hereare
therepliesthatwerereceived:
My two-minute elevator speech does not last two minutes. I tell the pub-
lic that any success I have had comes from having the ability do what I am
told. In my role as a city manager, the city council sets the policy direc-
tion,anditismyjobtousetheresourcesofthecity,inpartnershipwith
the city employees, other governmental agencies, not-for-profits, busi-
nesses, and citizens to carry out that policy with the highest degree of
success possible.
—Michael Van Milligen
City Manager
Dubuque, Iowa
ctymgr@cityofdubuque.org
Beingpartofateamofethicalprofessionalsdedicatedtofacilitatingour
community’ssuccess—thatismyroleinlocalgovernmentasadeputy
city manager.
Myjobistoassistthecitymanagerinhereffortstoimplementtan-
gible policies and programs that will shape the progress our city council
seekstoachieve.
Daytoday,Iapplybestmanagementpracticestoensurethatpublic
resources are being used effectively and efficiently for the community’s
benefit. I do that by leading a department focused on neighborhood
services—themunicipalfunctionsthatdirectlyaffectresidents,likesolid
waste, transit, code enforcement, and animal services.
As a professional manager, I maintain open lines of communication
with division supervisors and field staff about the city council’s goals and
objectivesandthecitymanager’sdirection.Asaneighborhoodservices
team,ourcommonmissionistoensurethattheworkwedoeveryday
complements and is consistent with the direction that our elected offi-
cials wish to lead the community.
Theworkisfun,exhilarating,andverychallenging.Thebestreward
comeswhenwehearfromaresidentthatajobis“welldone!”andwe
see in our performance measurements that progress is being made in
providingthehighestqualityservicesatthebestvaluetotaxpayers.Local
government management is a great field, and I hope to pursue my career
in it for years to come.
—Cody Tubbs
Deputy City Manager
Elk Grove, California
ctubbs@elkgrovecity.org
PM What’s Your Elevator Speech?
Upcoming
PM
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08-102
... Therefore, elected officials rely on managers' professional knowledge and skills to make policy decisions (Zhang & Feiock, 2010;Zhang & Yang, 2009). Novak and Nalbandian (2009) emphasize that "it is critical that the professional manager prepares the council for its work" (p. 24). ...
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This paper uses a personal narrative format to recount an emeritus professor of public administration’s ongoing study of how social class and socioeconomic origins shape various aspects of bureaucracy, with special emphasis on the sorting function of formal education and its subsequent effects on personnel selection. Following an account of his family background, he summarizes his recent findings on the relationship between class and administration, followed by a sampling of remedies he proposes for bringing socioeconomic issues, especially the effects of inherited social, financial, and cultural capital, into the mainstream of our discipline. The author argues that by implementing these changes, we will not only prove we are the “cutting edge” enterprise we claim to be, but our actions will provoke other fields to enact similar democratic and egalitarian reforms.
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Local public managers regularly participate in the legislative policy-making process and even play a leadership role in policy preparation and deliberation. This phenomenon challenges the dichotomy model of the politicsadministration relationship and raises some rarely studied questions: How do managers work with their elected officials to shape legislative policy making? What knowledge and skills do they need to participate effectively in policy making? And how can MPA programs help prepare students who are interested in a local government career for this role? To answer these questions, we conducted interviews with city and county managers in Florida. The opinions from local public managers help us better understand their role in policy making and provide us with valuable insights about the development of MPA education.
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