Emma Broomfield & Anna Miley

The external and internal signs of dysfunction within an elected council

Dysfunction in local government

Dysfunction within local government councils is a complex issue and has broad-ranging impacts for both councillors, council staff and importantly the community. Dysfunction describes any number of, or a series of, behaviours that together are interfering with the organisation’s capacity to achieve outcomes. In the case of an elected council, this means there is a failure to meet the communities needs and expectations.

In our previous blog we gave an overview of dysfunction and detail on the three places it typically shows up in local government:
  1. In relationships between councillors
  2. In relationships with council staff
  3. In relationships with the community
What remains constant is that you, as an elected councillor, are at the centre of these three relationships. This can be hard to hear and accept. However, once you do, it opens the door for you to reflect upon these relationships and identify any signs of dysfunction.

Signs and symptoms of dysfunction

Put simply, dysfunction can be seen as a form of unresolved relationship conflict. It rarely feels good. For most people, it feels uncomfortable and it is not a place they want to stay. It erodes motivation and trust, and importantly hinders performance of the organisation.

Conflict that is unaddressed also leads to a downward spiral for the group and can be difficult to stop once it starts. To avoid situations like the public inquiry into the Wingecarribee Shire Council, in which the elected council was dismissed, it is important to know what the external and internal signs of dysfunction look and feel like both within yourself and in the behaviours of others. This can help address the issue early rather than letting the situation escalate.

External signs

The external signs of dysfunction within a governing body will show up in people's behaviour and actions and in the relationships between people. As we explored in our earlier article, this could be in relationships with other councillors, Council staff or with the community.
The external signs you may experience when the governing body becomes dysfunctional can be illustrated by the “resistance line” concept from Lewis Deep Democracy. This concept explains how behaviours can be covert or overt, and as the behaviours become more covert, the less effective communication becomes and the more the dysfunctional the group is likely to become.
The resistance line starts with behaviours like jokes, sarcasm and excuses, all of which are unhelpful behaviours but often get overlooked as par for the course in political environments. It is important to pay attention to these early signs of resistance as they are red flags of underlying tensions that need to be resolved.

More destructive behaviours can form out of these seemingly benign ones, such as gossiping, poor communication and disruption of the group's progress. These are more overt and therefore easier to spot but are still quite insidious and can be difficult to address if left to fester. Examples include factions or alliances forming, hostile emails behind the scenes and tapping out of communicating with each other.

As conflict and tension escalates, behaviours become quite obvious, such as deliberately slowing down decision-making. For example, recission motions to change direction or overturn decisions and actively trying to undermine decisions. As communication further breaks-down and conflict escalates, behaviours may look like alliances depriving council of a quorum or councillors failing to show up to important briefings. 

Have you ever noticed any of these signs? If so, what did you do about it?

Internal signs

External signs and symptoms of dysfunction are generally easy to spot but what about the internal signs that you may be feeling or experiencing?

Internal signs include:
  • Being judgemental about the behaviour of others
  • Making assumptions about others behaviour
  • Fantasising about what would happen if that person was gone
  • Feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, fear and bitterness
  • Villainizing other people and seeing yourself as innocent
  • Depersonalising others (i.e. calling people derogatory names rather that by their name)
  • Loosing empathy for others
  • Getting emotionally stuck and ruminating on the problem
  • Venting excessively to others about what is happening
  • Simplifying the situation and missing the nuances of what has happened
  • Using extreme language to describe what is going on
  • Increasing physical and emotional signs of stress
  • Decreasing capacity to self-regulate in pressured situations e.g. Verbal outburst or excessive ranting
  • Seeking out opportunities to gossip
  • Using coping strategies that are not conducive to your wellbeing and therefore your performance.

Do any of these strike a chord? These internal signs are good indicators of how you may be unwittingly contributing to the dysfunction. These internal signs are the place where you can begin to address dysfunction. And although this first step in dealing with dysfunction is not the answer in isolation – it is a piece of the puzzle and an autonomous one that you have control over.

You are part of the solution

When dynamics are heading down the dysfunction spiral, it can be tempting to look to the Office of Local Government or a bigger power to intervene and sort things out for you. However, the Office of Local Government takes the view that councils are responsible for driving their improvement and are generally best placed to do so. Where councils are dysfunctional or failing to meet their obligations, the Minister for Local Government and the Office of Local Government encourage and support councils to act voluntarily to fix the problem.

We encourage you to read through this list of internal signs again and write down any points that you identify you are engaging in. For those points, brainstorm ways you can turn these into more positive and useful thoughts and behaviours. You are likely to find that you will need to charge your ‘empathy battery’ up to maximum and dial-up your willingness to learn, especially if you are currently experiencing some of the more overt and stressful symptoms of dysfunction. Understanding how your thoughts and behaviours, even those that may be sub-conscious or are seemingly benign, contribute to the group’s dysfunction is a powerful leadership skill and we consider it a necessary one.

Dysfunction is an uncomfortable and difficult situation for all involved. And although an individual’s change of behaviour is not the whole solution, it is an important and necessary part of the puzzle to move out of dysfunction and into a cohesive and effective elected body achieving positive outcomes for their community.

Summing up, dysfunction can manifest itself in different ways and different places. If you are experiencing signs of dysfunctional behaviour within your elected council it can be tricky to know what to do. This year in our 5 part webinar series we will be exploring dysfunction from multiple angles so councillors can be fully informed and up-skilled to keep themselves and the elected group on track to successful outcome delivery for their communities. 

Join our webinar series!
How to address dysfunction in your council

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