Updated: Sep 15, 2021
As a former Chief Administrative Officer, I often recall my most challenging moments on the job. That said, a career in local government is rewarding when it is based on the successful outcome of meeting the public’s needs, improving their quality of life, and bringing the community together.
However, a career in local government can certainly bring intensely challenging moments. The conditions we work in, and the rigourous expectations placed on administrative staff, can change very quickly and sometimes completely by surprise. When administrative staff run into inflection points, it is common for them to feel inadequate and defensive; to the point where even coming up with answers or strategies for routine items becomes more challenging.
To conserve momentum, it’s essential to understand the actual value of the voice of opposition amongst and between elected officials and the voice of opposition that sometimes exists between what Council wants or needs and what Administration can offer or suggest. In my experience, opinion or even rationale provided in support of a recommendation presented to Council made by the CAO or another member of management can be - and sometimes has been - received by some members on Council as open disagreement or resistance to a particular course of action.
I expect my former colleagues who remain in those important municipal administration roles to nod their heads as they recall the strikes they received when they provided an opposing opinion at a Council meeting.
The fear of future emotional strikes often leaves an imprint and buries the desire to provide further opposing opinions, even when delivered constructively. My observation has been that some local government elected officials perceive opposing views argumentatively, which is certainly most often not the intention of the Municipal Administration. Suppose we were to simply stop providing opposing opinions or tightened up the procedural rules for Council and Administration. In that case, we have foregone ideas that may present new opportunities that directly or indirectly benefit our communities.
This problem becomes culturally ingrained over time. Some municipalities see recommendations from Administration as Administration’s desired course of action, with perhaps a few choices for Council to consider. Other municipal councils perceive these recommendations as Administration wanting to drive the bus. I know that administrations fundamentally want their councils to be successful. I know that desire is reciprocated in councils that see the provision of the best municipal services efficiently – with Council and Administration pulling together on the same team.
Collectively, we need to understand that we just need to disagree better. That way, over time, we can help our colleagues in local government, whether elected or appointed, to see past the murky perception of opposition and to witness the value that gets created by richer debate instead.
As always, we are interested in your thoughts about this topic. What have you experienced by way of conflict in council meetings and workshops that doesn’t lend itself to generating greater ideas?
You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The company’s Twitter profile is @strategic_steps.