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The Importance of Council Professional Development

If we’re not constantly learning or bettering ourselves, then we’re likely standing still. This is especially true for elected officials (and members of Boards of Directors, Committee Members, etc., for that matter), whose job it is to specifically not be an expert on everything.


The very nature of good governance means that municipal Council Members work on behalf of their stakeholders — residents, business owners, etc. They are meant to take the opinion of the whole, and place it through the lens of the organization’s Vision, Mission, and Values to make decisions for the municipality. Sure, individual members join Council with particular skill-sets that add to the knowledge of Council, and — in an ideal world — those skill-sets will complement each other to form a super skill-set. (I recognize that’s not an actual term — but in my mind, I pictured the Transformers combining to make one unstoppable beast. Yes, I am also an adult.)


All this to say, elected officials are expected to govern to the best of their ability — they’re not expected to know everything about everything. What is expected, though, is that they learn about different areas pertinent to their work, and expand their knowledge base to best be able to operate within their governance role. That can take form in a couple of different ways.


Council approaches knowledge expansion relating to their outward-facing work, either intentionally or unintentionally, by necessity. If an issue relating to a proposed development is brought forward to Council, it is each member’s duty to learn everything they can about that development prior to voting on the matter. This is true for any decision being made by Council. At the same time, that expertise and capacity is meant to live within Administration. Council can request documents of Administration, and they can access the knowledge of internal Subject Matter Experts. If it’s an engineering piece, there are those with engineering backgrounds who can speak to the matter; if it’s an issue of financials, the CFO should have the answers Council needs to move forward; and so on.


On the other end of the spectrum, Council can access Professional Development that makes them better in their complete roles as elected officials, not just dependant on a specific issue of the day. In the same way that municipalities are encouraged (or mandated) to provide orientations at the beginning of a new election term — focused on good governance, roles and responsibilities, etc. — professional development sessions can, and should, be held throughout a term to increase Council knowledge and skill.


Professional development can be broad or narrow in scope — general knowledge versus required knowledge. For example, I provide Media Relations and Crisis Communications workshops to Councils, based on my own extensive background working in media, followed by years spent working directly in Crisis Communications. These workshops are requested for one of two reasons. Either these are skills viewed as valuable to municipal Councils, and therefore likely helpful to the municipal organization; or these workshops are requested because somebody acted inappropriately in the media, or specifically during a crisis. Regardless of the reason behind any topic of Professional Development, the outcome is the same: Increased Council knowledge and skills, which should translate to increased performance in their role as elected officials.


Obviously, there are endless areas of Professional Development that can be explored, and to different degrees. Based on Strategic Steps’ internal capacity and slate of Subject Matter Experts, we offer Council workshops in areas including:

· Governance Orientations and Refreshers

· Role Clarity and Responsibilities

· Media Relations and Crisis Communications

· Codes of Conduct and Ethical Behaviour

· ‘The DNA of Great Leaders’

· ‘The Great Governance Gap’

· ‘Council’s Levers and When to Use Them’

· Priority-Based Budgeting and its Role in Great Governance

· Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)

· Style Analysis: Creating a Great, Cohesive Team

· Brainstorming the Wicked Problems: Spending Time Thinking Through the Tough Issues

· Speaking in Plain Language: Connecting with the Community


These are the types of Professional Development sessions that do more than help each individual Council Member develop their own individual skills; rather, they strengthen Council as a whole, and help Council operate with Great Governance in mind. Further, through Professional Development on issues of public-facing concern (such as communications- or conduct-related sessions), there is benefit to the municipal organization as a whole, ensuring that Council is well-equipped to work in a manner that benefits the municipality, and Council as a whole.


It comes down to an issue of proactivity versus reactivity. Do we want to organize sessions under duress, in response to an issue — or do we want to proactively prepare our elected officials to best serve local stakeholders, while helping the municipality achieve organizational excellence?


If you have any thoughts or questions on the information I’ve outlined here, please feel free to reach out by email at ben@strategicsteps.ca

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I suppose this post is intended as much for the general public as it is for those involved in local government, though it certainly shows the value of what local government provides. I was challenged

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