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Achieving Success - From Candidate Workshops to Governance Refreshers

More and more, I am running across situations in which conflict between and among elected officials is leading to dysfunction in municipal councils, regional service commissions, school boards, and other governance entities. We see factions developing, each of which believes that the other is in the wrong, and goodwill that may have existed evaporates quickly. That loss is hard to overcome even though the group of people has to work together for the remainder of whatever term they signed up for.


Fixing this problem is a constant burr under the saddle. It comes down to a few major points of either contention or misunderstanding. At the core of this is either a lack of understanding of role clarity or an unwillingness to focus on the proper role for the person involved. While it’s not really two solitudes, governance and management are quite different. They have different outlooks, different measure of success, and they tend to attract different types of people.


Addressing the divergence between what is supposed to be done and what is actually being done is quite difficult after that horse has left the barn. It can occur, but it requires effort and good will; aspects of people that might not always be present.


The best way to deal with this is to keep the horse in the barn in the first place. I see lots of problems emanating from a misunderstanding of the job on the part of candidates for office. They want change, to fix things, to do something specific. What they don’t really want a lot of the time is to do the hands-off governing that the role requires. We have hosted or facilitated many workshops for council or board candidates that are sponsored by the municipality or sometimes by a local chamber of commerce. The idea is to present to tire-kickers what the job actually entails before names appear on ballots.

These short presentations often involve a retiring local official to provide local context, along with an overview of what the job really entails, opportunities and restrictions presented by legislation, a conversation about the responsibilities of local government, and a requirement that each person who gets elected must work with the others for the next four years.


This isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a start. A quirk of this is that we have seen people who are interested in running in one municipality attend another municipality’s candidate workshop because they don’t want to show their cards at home. The rules are the rules, so where a candidate learns about the job really doesn’t matter. We’ve also noticed that sometimes those who need the orientation are the least likely to take it. These people are the common sense warriors who are dogmatically focused on their own issue regardless of what the law or reality may say.


I have heard people say that these candidate orientations ought to be mandatory, but I disagree. Forcing someone to attend an event is not going to make them pay attention. It might just have the opposite effect of getting their back up and making them even more obstinate.


In a few parts of Canada, it is mandatory that local governments host orientations for newly elected council members shortly after the election. This is a good start, but like the candidate orientations, it’s not possible to mandate that the councillor appear or learn.


It’s only after the reality of the job sets in that some people come around to understanding what they have got themselves into. It’s at this point, that a governance refresher session might be useful. We’ve commonly been asked to tie these refreshers to a review of annual strategic priorities. This works quite well. It also allows the refresher to be designed to focus on whatever topic the council or the CAO thinks is most important or the area of governance that some members of the council have strayed from the most.

The constant focus on good governance; from orienting candidates, to providing a thorough onboarding to new councillors, to having an annual or mid-term refresher, is a good way of keeping the municipal focus on the role clarity that needs to be in place for a well-functioning municipal corporation to be there to deliver programs and services to the people who need them.


As a municipal leader, what is your experience with putting elected officials on the right track and keeping them there?


As always, you can reach me at ian@strategicsteps.ca

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