The relationship between councillors and council staff is critical to the success of a local council. When these relationships deteriorate or are not based on mutual trust and respect, there can be ongoing impacts for the organisation. This can include low morale and motivation of staff, increasing complaints and poor performance. In the worst case, a breakdown in these relationships can result in dysfunction within council and a loss of trust from the community in council decision making.
Model councillor and staff interaction policy
To support positive and professional working relationships between the governing body and staff, the Office of Local Government has released a Model Councillor and Staff Interaction Policy for local councils. It is based on best practice and complements the Model Code of Conduct. Councils may choose to adopt the policy. Importantly, if the policy is adopted, a breach of the policy will also be a breach of the Code of Conduct.
Importantly, the policy applies to both councillors and staff. Notably, the policy applies to all forms of communication between councillors and staff at any time of the day and at any place. Although it encourages interactions during usual business hours.
It sets out a framework for councillors carrying out their civic role including how to:
- interact with council staff
- receive advice from council staff
- access information through council staff
Different roles & responsibilities
Critically, the policy recognises the different roles that councillors and staff play in responding to community needs. These roles are set out in the Local Government Act 1993 and the Model Code of Conduct. It is essential for councillors and staff to understand these different roles as shown below:
In simple terms, councillors set the strategic direction of the council. They make decisions as part of a democratically elected governing body, are responsible for representing the community and keeping the performance of the organisation under review.
On the other hand, council staff are the doers! They put council decisions into action, advise the governing body and oversee service delivery. The General Manager has a specific role – overseeing all council staff, managing the day to day operations and ensuring lawful decisions are implemented without delay.
For a council to succeed, these different roles need to be understood and respected. Crucially, councillors cannot tell council staff how to do their job, must only contact authorised council staff and should never use their position to gain favourable treatment for themselves or others. A list of authorised staff is maintained by the General Manager.
Principles to guide interactions
The policy is based on five key principles:
Practical guidance for councillors
Councillors should understand that staff are not accountable to them individually. Local government is a very hierarchical creature – the administration is accountable to the General Manager, who is in turn, accountable to Council as a governing body. Everyone needs to stay in their lane! Council also staff have a highly complex task to provide advice on a diverse range of issues and are often implementing multiple resolutions at once.
On a practical level, councillors should appreciate that it can take time to respond to requests for information. When requesting information or asking questions, councillors should make sure it is relevant and necessary to perform their role. Councillors should be careful not to delve into operational matters.
Requests should also be specific and made in a respectful way. Councillors should not seek to access information about matters in which they have a conflict of interest, unless the information is otherwise publicly available. Importantly, the General Manager can say no to providing information in certain circumstances. For example, if the request is vague or would be an unreasonable diversion of staff time and resources.
Examples of inappropriate interactions
The policy sets out several examples of behaviour that would be considered inappropriate and a likely breach of the policy and Code of Conduct. This includes councillors:
- approaching council staff to discuss individual or operational matters
- not been given equal access to information
- going into staff only areas without permission
- acting in a way that constitutes bullying or harassment
- making personal attacks on staff at council meetings or online
- pressuring staff on how to do their job
Notably, the policy also deals with serial offenders. Where a councillor behaves in a manner that puts the health, safety or welfare at risk, the General Manager may restrict that councillor’s access to staff.
Support for local councillors
To support councillors in this space, we offer a tailored workshop on the Code of Conduct. This includes the boundaries between councillors and staff. We deliver this workshop as a stand alone session or as part of an induction program. For more information about our workshop, please contact us:
T 0421 180 881