Getting out of your own way
There's a common saying that the best way to improve is to stop digging a deeper hole. Unfortunately, as I've been a student of effective local government, primarily around Western Canada, I seem to keep running into the names of some municipalities that don't seem to be able to get out of their own way. You know the ones – they're constantly electing dysfunctional councils, they are frequently trying out new CAOs, they're under investigation for something or other. I often wonder what makes this happen? These places – large and small – operate under the same rules as every other municipality in the province, state, or territory, but they don't seem to be able to get out of their own way.
As I write this, I have just embarked on a series of council orientations for 28 municipalities throughout Alberta, from small counties and villages up to the province's largest city. The principles are the same for all of them, but the capacity and expertise vary greatly. I really like when the orientations are regional because elected officials get to see how other municipal councils operate and hopefully learn some good things from each other.
Some threads run through the councils that don't seem to be particularly functional, and the biggest one lies at the citizens' feet, including those who do – and those who don't – vote. If a council is dysfunctional, why would citizens choose to re-elect them? I don't understand why citizens don't demand better from their elected officials. It can take a few terms before people realize that maybe the problem lies with council.
Another significant and relatively common issue in these places is that the elected officials think they can do a better job of running the place than the people they actually hire to do the job. The title of my first book, 'Who'sDriving the Grader,' comes from a story about a council member who suggested to the director of public works or the CAO that they'd do a better job grading the roads than the actual grader operator. I could identify the municipality, but the story is common enough that the actual place doesn't really matter. These councils sabotage themselves by hiring CAOs who, if they challenge council, are soon out the door. A CAO who illuminates the problem to council and perhaps suggests how to remedy the situation is often not welcome for very long.
A third issue I see frequently is that these 'basket case' municipalities look inwards for best practices. They do what they have always done and are that's good enough. They don't learn from other communities that may have wrestled with similar issues and come out the other side better for it. Council members who are sure they are always the 'smartest one in the room' generally don't learn or govern very well.
Eventually, all of this fossilizes and "it's always been this way." The resulting culture is extremely hard to change, but it must be done. Often the change has to start with voters, who eventually become tired of the rancour, inefficiency, and wheel-spinning, and they choose to vote the rascals out of office.
For staff, this is a tough time. Until council sees that they are the problem and chooses to act – or voters act for them - the problem is nearly impossible to reconcile. Good CAO after good CAO can be shown the door. But, if an acquiescent CEO gets hired and continues to do the bidding of a council that acts outside the rules, the problem only gets more intractable.
At this point, we sometimes get called in, whether by the province or by the municipality, to conduct some sort of organizational diagnosis. If the council is truly interested in being more focused on governance, we can assist. If, however, council maintains that they are always right, we can have limited impact.
This brings us full circle. Change, if it is to happen, ideally begins with a self-aware council. I believe that elected and appointed officials both want their community to be the best it can be. So agreeing on what 'best' might look like is the place to start.
Are there examples of communities and councils that can't stop digging? Have you seen change happen over time, where a poor-functioning council sees the light, stops digging and does better by their own citizens and staff? Please let me know. You can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org