Over the past decade or so, I’ve had the opportunity to provide orientations to new Councils dozens of times in three provinces, one territory, and in one US state. While each one is unique because of the group of individuals and the circumstances of their individual communities, there are themes that certainly emerge.
I am reminded of this at the moment because I am halfway through providing a series of four keynote addresses for new elected officials in British Columbia. The Local Government Leadership Academy of the Union of BC Municipalities puts on these regional orientations each time there is a general election, such as the one that occurred late in 2022.
I have been honoured to provide an overview of the Who’s Driving the Grader book in terms of some of the lessons it contains and some of the knowledge it can impart. The talks have been very well received, and it’s given me the opportunity to interact with people who I otherwise might not have met.
As with every other time I get to work with new council members, there are a few themes that emerge at the top of the pile. These topics are about things like community safety and adapting to climate change. I will say that while the former topic is nearly universal where I have worked, while the topic of climate change is not.
Community safety, essentially ensuring that people feel safe where they live, is a topic of interest to every elected official. It’s a concept firmly rooted at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The nuance to it is that statistics may indicate that a locality is safe, but the people who live there might still not ‘feel’ safe. This becomes a trickier problem to solve, in no small part because of people and groups that are interested in having us believe we are not safe so they can use that feeling to their advantage.
There is no doubt that some places are inherently safer than others; the data tells us this. Where the feeling of safety comes in is much harder to build. It’s certainly a challenge for all local governments – both to make their community safer and to make it feels safer too.
The second common topic is around climate change, whether it really exists, what to do about it, and how to sell that to the community. In my experience the importance of the topic depends on geography.
In some places, particularly those that rely on industry that contributes to climate change, the topic isn’t really considered. In those communities that see the effect of climate change, the topic is much more front of mind. Both types of communities – and their councils – live on the same planet though. This too becomes a tricky topic.
Where the effects of change are felt, whether through fires, or through having too much or too little water, councillors are concerned about how to mitigate the damage in the short-term while trying to figure out how to reduce the likelihood or intensity of damage over the long-term.
Finally; a common question I ask new local government elected officials is whether the job is what they thought it would be. My subjective analysis would say that probably about 75% of people of whom I ask the question respond with a ‘no’. That response is universally related to the number of hours the job takes up. The number required is always more than was originally expected.
The other reason for ‘no’ is the scope of the role. Some got into the fray wanting to solve a problem that really isn’t within the realm of local government, while others thought they could make decisions much faster than they really can.
While federal and provincial or territorial governments appear in the mainstream media quite commonly, local government doesn’t. People seem to think that local government operates on the Westminster model, but it doesn’t.
To me, the failing is on how well we educate citizens on the scope of all orders of government and the differences between them. If I had a magic wand, I’d do something about that within the school curriculum and within community groups too.
If you’re an elected official or an administrator reading this, I’d be interested in your take on what I’ve written. What are the ‘big rocks’ in your community, and how well is the role of council member understood by those who occupy the position?
As always, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.