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Visible Accountability

Elected officials are ultimately accountable to the people they represent. This is one of the central tenets of democracy, but it’s not always one that is front of mind for councillors between elections.


One of the ways that accountability can be indicated and supported is through the action of creating a plan for the term, acting on that plan, and then considering how well the plan worked. In many municipalities, that plan is a strategic plan that is set by council as a whole near the beginning of their term. It is important to recognize that the strategic plan is about change, and therefore it does not apply to all the work of the municipality. The vast bulk of the effort goes into keeping the lights on and the streets plowed. That’s not about change, so it’s not in the strategic plan. That is certainly not to say that the ongoing work is not important though!


Council members are almost always elected with a mandate for change of some sort. It can be a big change, or it could be a series of small changes that can be implemented – or at least begun – over the next four years.


Putting that virtual pen to paper provides accountability. The strategic plan illustrates what council members think is important in the life of their community, what is worth spending scarce resources on. I see a lot of strategic plans, some we have assisted with, and others that we’ve not helped out on. The best ones are aspirational, meaning they will stretch the community, and there is no guarantee they will come to pass in their entirety. There should not be an expectation that the entire plan will come to pass. If it does, I often think that the plan really is just operational rather than strategic.


One of the problems for truly strategic plans in terms of accountability is that they are focused on the governance level of the municipality, and they don’t represent 100% of the work that is being done. Because they are high-level, you won’t see goals that include fixing potholes, or increasing the number of lessons at the swimming pool, or even keeping taxes at a certain level. The truly strategic plan will provide management with direction – the goals in the plan will indicate what the members of council want to see changed over the course of their term.


Within that change could be large topics like infrastructure maintenance and asset management, or being a place that supports a healthy population. Within those high-level goals and their desired outcomes, management has to figure out how to accomplish Council’s desires. It’s management that might come up with the corporate business plan that includes pothole repair and recreational programming. Ultimately, it’s what actually gets done that serves the desires of the population, and it provides accountability for those members of council who had put potholes on their election brochures.


I am fond of repeating that no plan survives first contact with reality. The strategic plan, and its associated accountability, needs to be flexible enough to adapt to changes in the environment while still staying true to the expressed vision of the council.

Near the end of the term, council will have created a strategic plan and they will have worked on it for a few years. It is then that the voters of the community can decide whether the people at the council table have been truly accountable to what they said they would do four years previously.


As a municipal leader, what does accountability mean to you? I have written about governance-level plans, but there are other types of accountability too.

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

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