Starting a new job is always nerve-wracking, no matter who you are or what you do. As a result, we tend to understand that a new team member might need some guidance and a little time to acclimatize to their new gig. But, what if you’re a newly elected municipal councillor? Typically, we expect that the skills and qualities that helped them get elected will be enough for the job, but what we may not know, is that municipal councillors are walking into one of the most technical professions in Canada.
Municipal councillors are expected to be masters of three domains: technical, professional, and political. Technical ability is required to understand the complexities and quirks of municipal issues like housing and infrastructure, while professional conduct and an understanding of the functioning of the city, as well as of local organizations, are a must. And of course, the cut and thrust of politics exists at the local level as much as the federal or provincial, albeit in different forms.
Over the past few decades, municipalities have also received new responsibilities from other orders of government, on housing, climate change, and mental health and addictions support for example, on top of their existing duties. Without extra resources or personnel, existing municipal staff and councillors are trying to do it all, and often are learning how to build the metaphorical plane as they fly it. Not to mention, sitting on a legislative body for the first time comes with its own, steep learning curve; how does one draft and move a motion?
Municipal leadership and administration are such broad topics, universities offer degrees, whole fields of study, on them. With so much to do and so little time to learn, I find myself asking: how are we preparing the people who serve on our local councils, and are we doing enough?
As little as twenty years ago, municipal training constituted a meeting with the mayor, a quick chat with the city solicitor, and then it was time for the first Council meeting of the new term. Over the past decades, local and provincial governments, as well as some non-profit organizations, have begun to understand councillors’ need for training in our modern context.
The provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, offers six days of mandatory training to new councillors and municipal administrators, focused on policy education and training, but also offers ongoing operational training supports for those that seek them. The City of Calgary, boasting one of the most thorough training processes in Canada, offers two weeks of orientation, including overviews of each city department, briefings from the ethics advisor, the integrity commissioner, the city solicitor and auditor, media training, and mock council and public meetings. Municipal associations, like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, contribute as well, by offering deep dives into topics like asset management, strategic planning, and land use and development, that help councillors to level up their policy bona fides.
Although the past decades have indeed seen broad improvements in training for municipal councillors and administrators, these improvements have often been through provincial governments or within larger cities. It is clear that there is significant variation in training quality and availability across jurisdictions, even in the same province. Large cities may have the resources to supplement the training on offer from their province and non-profits, but what about smaller, rural, or remote communities that may not have the resources to put toward training? Is it reasonable to expect that valuable and limited tax dollars go toward training the people tasked with spending those dollars for the betterment of their residents? This is a political question at its heart, for determination by each town themselves, but good governance should not be a question of availability of resources.
One solution could be a Communities Capacity and Training Strategy, based on municipal governance best practices and administered by the relevant provincial government, which has ultimate responsibility for municipal affairs. Such a strategy would be less expensive than having each community create their own plan, and would ensure that town councillors have a strong grasp of the fundamental ideas of municipal governance. It could also help towns to operate more efficiently and to develop capacity to achieve a better quality of life for their residents.
Another possibility is the creation of province-wide governance and technical training for new administrators and councillors by provincial and territorial municipal associations. With aggregate data from municipal members and best practices observed over many years and governments, municipal associations are well-placed to deliver effective and practical modern training. Municipal associations also offer a built-in pathway to creating such training, through consultations with members, and motions and resolutions from municipalities to the association Boards of Directors.
Although municipal training has come a long way since the turn of the millennium, we have much more to do to put our local governments on solid footing and to ensure new councillors and administrators are equipped to hit the ground running. Ultimately, municipal councillors have that which is most important: an understanding of their constituents and the support of their communities. In our zeal to serve our communities, we need to make sure the rest doesn’t fall by the wayside.
What do you think municipal councillor training should include? What are the must-have elements of any reputable training program? Email us your thoughts at email@example.com.