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Blog: Blog2

What vs How – Whose Role is Whose?

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

I work with more than a few members of councils whose primary plank on their platform was ‘efficiency’ or ‘red tape reduction’ or ‘lower taxes’. I have a hard time wrapping my head around those as an ‘end’ rather than a ‘means’.

Government is about making life better for constituents and for communities. As such, the Council must first determine ‘what’ they want to do. If they start with the ‘how’ – how they want to do something, there’s really no point. Council could choose to do the wrong thing, but if they do it very cheaply and efficiently, does that count as success?

I have had conversations with councillors who, when I asked about what success looks like at the end of the term, they reply “reduce waste”. My brain immediately went to ‘who defines waste’ and ‘waste from doing what’?

Council’s purpose is to set the direction for their community over the long run. They are asked to make decisions that won’t see completion for perhaps many years from now. This means that there can be short-term pain for long-term gain. In the realm of the elected, that pain could come in the form of political ramifications to decisions that are made. I really respect those elected officials who see community service as job one, rather than seeing getting re-elected as job one. Do the first one well, and the second becomes much easier.

Getting back to the ‘what’ vs ‘how’ question. That’s where council’s formal strategy comes in.

I think we’ve done a couple of dozen strategic plans over the past year or so, for municipalities, charities, commissions, regulated professions, and community groups. Fundamentally, the question that is asked during those workshops is ‘what’ – what does the council, the commission, or the board want to see different by the end of their time with the organization. If the governors can provide that insight, then the experts in management can figure out the ‘how’.

Leave the experts to make that determination. When governors get too involved in answering the ‘how’ question and putting that all down on paper, it can hamstring the creativity of managers, staff, and the service delivery folks who know what to do to generate the results that will lead to the changes that the governors are looking for.

When I reflect on some of the early terms in this post, terms like ‘efficiency’, or ‘tax reduction’ I see that they aren’t really ‘what’ type questions; they are more of the ‘how’. Council wants to see things change over time and I understand that. However, tax reduction is a means to an end – it’s a ‘how’. Tax reduction is used for other things; it can be used as an incentive to grow the community or the business sector, it can be used as a way of competing with nearby communities, it can be used as a way to scale back the scope of local government.

If the tax dollar was a thing, it’s not the dollar itself that makes anyone happy or sad; it’s what's done with that dollar that matters. To me, value matters more than an absolute number.

Council’s job is to figure out the ‘what’. Management’s job is to figure out the ‘how’. By sticking to those roles, local government runs significantly smoother.

This role clarity conversation is at the heart of my first book, Who’s Driving the Grader and Other Governance Questions.

I realize that what I have written here will not bring about universal agreement. Where would you challenge me on this?

As always, please reach out. You can find me at 780-416-9255 or

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