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  • Writer's pictureIan McCormack

Setting the Stage: Another New Year

When I was at university back in the last millennium, I remember a song called Another New Year by the west-coast band Spirit of the West. The song spoke to what was coming, what had been left behind, and what to look forward to.


The end of the calendar year and the end of the fiscal year both arrive at the same time – at the stroke of midnight on December 31. Then it's 2024, and all that has to bring. It will take a while to close out 2023 and a bit of time to come up to speed on 2024. As I think about what's required to set up an effective year for local governments across the country, it's very similar to setting up an effective year for boards, agencies, commissions, and even for ourselves as a private sector company that works in the same spaces you do.


I was challenged to think about what constitutes an effective new year for CAOs, SAOs, Administrators and the like. How do you stay one step ahead of your governance boards while still getting the organization's essential work going and responding to new ideas that elected officials might have?


Long-time CAOs likely have this task down to something that keeps on rolling. Most of your work isn't impacted by what the calendar says. The services required today are the same as they will be tomorrow. People still want their garbage picked up, the pool to be open, community service programs to be run, and all the other aspects of local life that make their own community the one in which they've chosen to remain.


Looking in as a quasi-outsider, there are some things that I've seen effective administrations do and some lessons I've learned from councils that are much too far into the weeds.


As the only employee of council, the CAO is the person who is accountable to that group of community members that citizens have elected to be their 'board of directors' between elections. Providing that board with timely governance-level information and requests for decisions is the best way to keep an even keel and to be predictable.


Strategy and Planning


The best starting point is to get direction from the council regarding their analysis of the past year and their desires for the future year. Getting their input on a look-back at how well their strategic plan was enacted last year and learning from what worked and what didn't allows administrators to make any necessary course corrections based on systemic or external issues such as federal legislative changes, climate change, or the impact of conspiracy theorists in the community. Learning from what happened is a great way to ensure the municipality is prepared for what's to come.


Setting the new year's priorities is important, too. A strategic plan is ambitious, with many desires taking years to bring to fruition. Having council decide what's timely and important for 2024 indicates what the focus needs to be and where scarce budget dollars should be assigned. Conveniently, that decision also helps to identify what the focus won't be for this coming year.


Ideally, this decision is made in time for the changes to impact budget 2024; meaning those who start the year on interim budgets have the chance to make some adjustments before the final budget reaches council.


Conflict


Dealing with issues on council, such as unhealthy or unconstructive intra-council conflict, is important too. That needs to be nipped in the bud before it burns out of control. This is especially true for councils that are more than halfway through their terms. They've decided they can't get along, and maybe they're jockeying for a position to set up for the next election campaign. Perhaps a refresher on the code of conduct or role clarity is in order?


Support for CAOs


I've interacted with many CAOs who've intimated that it's lonely at the top. I'll bet it is. For those of you who are feeling that way, there is help. Many CAOs I know have established informal mentorship groups of two or three others who are contact points for topics only CAOs have to deal with. There's strength in knowing that others have the same issues and burdens. Besides, it's just kind of nice to have a conversation with someone who doesn't want or need something from you right now.


Over the years, I've interacted increasingly with administrators' associations, from provincial and territorial ones to the national ones (CAMA). Their staff, boards, and members are all in the same boat as municipal staff leaders. Their programs,

conferences, seminars, and networking events are often timely ways for CAOs to interact with one another and focus on something completely different than their daily jobs. I'd encourage any CAO to join their municipal and national administrators' association and contribute to them as you can.


During my career in local government, I've developed a network of elected and appointed municipal leaders with whom I interact regularly on a collegial basis rather than a work basis. The give and take works out over time. We learn from one another, and we support each other. I often tell people, "I don't charge for a call".


2024 is upon us. For some of you, it's your first new year as a CAO; for others, it's been a long career. Regardless of which end of your career you're facing next year, the supports, issues, and tools remain useful.


As a municipal leader, how do you prepare for the coming year? Where does your support network come from?


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

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