Training New Council Members Need — But Don’t Always Get
Municipal elections across Canada have resulted in major political shifts for local government, and new council members have little time to get up to speed. In Manitoba alone, nearly 50% of all those elected on voting day are brand new to the role. That’s a wild number of first timers.
There are processes through which council will be fed information in the days and weeks immediately following the election. council members will be exposed to numerous areas of relevance and importance in the early days of the new term, often through formal council orientations. For new council members, this will prove to be a first glance at the role they’re set to fill for the coming four years. For returning council members, these orientations serve as a good refresher to kick off the new term on the right foot. In either instance, the result is council members drinking from a fire hose.
Orientations explore topics ranging from good governance to local government structures, often also delving into issues of municipal finances, policies, procedures, bylaws, plans, and so on. It’s a lot to take on. As an aside, this intensiveness of initial training is why we suggest council go through Governance Refresher Workshops midway through their term. There’s no way they’re remembering everything unloaded upon them during an orientation, and even if they do, new questions will constantly arise as they experience different pressures through their time on council.
What’s often lost in all of this is the tactical pieces of what will make a council member more effective in their role. Everyone is naturally focused on ensuring council knows its role within the municipality — that they know what they’re doing to be able to dive into budgeting, meetings, and decision-making as effectively as possible. As a result, people often forget to beef up their skills and capacity in areas that will lend to the success of the municipality. It’s the battle between knowing what you’ll be doing and knowing how best to do it.
Some of the workshops I personally facilitate include:
· Communicating with residents and other local stakeholders in an effective manner (we call this session ‘Speaking in Plain Language’)
· Media Relations
· Crisis Communications
There are many other areas of professional development worth exploring outside these bounds, as well, including but not limited to:
· Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
· Priority-Based Budgeting
· The DNA of Great Leaders
· Codes of Conduct and Ethical Behaviour
· Creating a Great, Cohesive Team
· Council’s Levers and When to Use Them
· Effective Decision-Making Based to Serve Your Community
· Leveraging Intermunicipal Collaboration for Regional Excellence
Some of these areas of development are based primarily on personal capacity growth, while others focus on the collective growth of council. In either case, the benefit is to the municipality. This may be hard to see in some instances, and some organizations are hesitant to provide opportunities perceived as potentially supporting council members’ individual re-election bids. But let’s be honest: Experience on the job and how a council member operates within a term determines the outcome of their re-election bid — not whether they attended a workshop.
The benefit to council members is largely overshadowed by the benefit to the organization. Learning to effectively communicate with residents means local stakeholders will understand the work being undertaken by local government; how their taxes are used; the role of council versus that of administration; and so on. These are all beneficial to the municipality, and reduce pressure on administration and oftentimes, from frontline staff undeserving of public criticism or questioning.
Alternatively, building skills specific to council — such as unbiased decision-making, or and understanding of strategic intermunicipal collaboration — will have both short- and long-term positive impacts on your organization and the community as a whole.
A 45% turnover of council members is notably impactful for Manitoba. There will be undeniable growing pains. Similar waves from recent municipal elections will be seen across the country. There’s no shortage of headline-grabbing drama emerging from British Columbia’s municipal election, for example, and there are plenty of changes resulting from allegiance to political stripes in Ontario worth keeping an eye on.
It's easy to overlook skill development when there’s so much going on. However, having undertaken significant Organizational and Governance Reviews with municipalities facing note-worthy challenges, I can honestly say a number of governance issues and council-driven hurdles could have been avoided through proactive professional development.
Let us know if you’d like to schedule in some sessions for after budget season to build council’s capacity! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone me at 780-909-2594. There’s no time like the (near) present.