Aug 10 / Emma Broomfield

Nurturing a strong working relationship between the elected council and the executive team

Why this relationship matters

In local government, a harmonious and effective working relationship between the elected council and executive team is paramount to the success of the organisation and the overall betterment of communities. This synergy not only ensures the efficient functioning of local councils but also paves the way for informed decision-making and responsive governance. On the flip side, the breakdown of this relationship can quickly tip a council into dysfunction resulting in poor performance, low staff morale and personal stress to councillors and staff.

In our recent webinar with experienced local government CEO Michelle McFadyen, Michelle shared her insights into how council staff and councillors can foster this critical relationship. In this blog, we unpack these insights to benefit both councillors and council staff with the ultimate intention of boosting the ability of both sides to constructively and proactively contribute to a healthy relationship.

Three key steps to sustaining a successful relationship

Step 1: Know that you need the relationship

It may almost sound too obvious to state, but a crucial first step in nurturing the relationship is recognition by both councillors and council staff (particularly the General Manager and executive team) that this relationship is important. Indeed, it is essential to everyone's success. Once you know that the relationship is important, you can prioritise it.

Take a moment to reflect on the quality of the relationships you personally have with your council’s executive staff . Conversely, if you are a council staff member reflect on your relationship with the current elected councillors. Ask yourself - what value do I place on it?

Step 2: Actively nurture the relationship

Good relationships are a two-way street and take time and energy from both sides. The basis of any healthy relationship is:

  • good communication
  • mutual respect
  • trust that all parties have positive intent.

In the unique relationship between the council executive and councillors, these three aspects need to be intentionally nurtured through both formal pathways and from a human level. The relationships are also complex and dynamic.

Take a moment to think about the last time you consciously and actively did something to nurture your relationship. Reflect on what has worked well and what you could continue to do in the future to build on your success.

Step 3: Own your part (good and bad!)

Let's face it – not all relationships are smooth sailing all the time. There are likely to be times when someone does something to rock the boat. So it's worth paying attention to things that you might do that detract from the relationship. From a councillor perspective, there are some big ones like leaking confidential information or personally attacking staff in the Chamber. However, repeated patterns of behaviour that might seem minor when viewed in isolation, can often be the source of the relationship breakdown. For example, an accusatory tone in questions or consistently not reading the business papers. 

Take a moment to think about  things you may have done (or not done!) that might have undermined trust, resulted in misunderstandings or created an environment of disrespect. What could behaviour could you change or stop to turn things around?

Specific ways councillors can positively contribute

In the webinar, Michelle shared some specific ways councillors can positively contribute the relationship. We recap on these below: 

Know your different roles and responsibilities

A key aspect of maintaining a healthy working relationship is understanding each party's roles and responsibilities. Councillors are elected to represent their constituents' interests and provide policy and strategic direction as part of the elected council. Whereas the General Manager and the executive are tasked with implementing those policies and managing day-to-day operations.

Take a moment to revisit your formal roles and responsibilities that are set out in the legislation. Refresh yourself of the key policies that guide your interactions with each other.

Establish effective communication channels

Effective communication channels ensure that councillors are well-informed about council operations, while executive staff gain valuable perspectives from the elected representatives. Effective communication requires both parties to not only prioritise opportunities to communicate but to engage with each other respectfully. Regular meetings, both formal and informal, provide a platform for dialogue. Agree what works best for both councillors and the executive to share information. 

Set aside some time this week to meet with one key staff member who you are allowed to interact with under your policy and ask them about their preferred communication channels for you to be able to gain their advice in the future.

Respect the expertise of Council staff

Remember as a councillor, you don't have to be an expert in everything. Council staff are there to provide information and advice. Recognising and respecting the expertise of council staff and knowing your distinct roles fosters mutual understanding and reduces unnecessary conflicts. Valuing each other's strengths and knowledge also leads to better informed and robust decision-making.

Identify a current issue in front of council that you are lacking knowledge and then identify the key staff members who are likely to have expertise in this area. Through the appropriate channels, seek their advice to fill your knowledge gaps.

Be prepared and ask the right questions

Be prepared - read the business papers given to you before the council meeting to best inform your decisions. Ask questions before the meeting if the information in the business papers is unclear. Three attributes of a good question-asker are:

  • Be curious – this means asking open-ended questions that have no expectations, prejudice or bias.
  • Be intentional - choose your words with purpose. Before you launch into asking your question, think carefully about why you’re asking it. Be clear on what you hope to learn from the response.
  • Be brave - sometimes people don’t ask specific questions because they’re afraid they may be seen to be being difficult or look stupid. Choose a respectful tone and open body language to soften a probing question. 

In turn, council staff can provide further information to progress the decision-making. 

Try out some different question styles - open and closed. Notice how this makes a difference to the kind of response you might  receive from council staff. 

Keep an open mind when dealing with complaints

Listening to public complaints with empathy and putting those concerns into perspective is a crucial skill in your role as a representative of the community. It can be tempting for councillors to make promises to constituents that they cannot keep or to side with a community member’s view of events, especially if they strongly resonate with constituents’ views. But, this kind of approach can be detrimental to your relationship with council staff. Once you've attentively heard the complaint, it's essential to put the grievance into the broader context and take the time to hear the other side of the story.

To avoid falling into the trap of making promises you can’t keep in the heat of the moment, prepare a statement that you use repeatedly when communicating with constituents that shows you have heard their views, respect their opinions and reminds them that you are one voice amongst many in an elected council body. An example might be, “Thank you for sharing your views with me. I can understand this is an important issue to you and others in the community. I would like to consider what you have said today in the broader context of council and will gain further information.”

Fostering a positive working relationship between local councillors and the executive team is essential for the success of any local council. Good communication, mutual respect, and trust in good intent are crucial and must be maintained by both sides. To nurture this relationship, councillors can follow the key steps outlined above. Watch the webinar recording for more information and access to bonus content.

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