A good working relationship with members of the governing board is crucial for every local government manager. So to ensure a good first impression with your newly elected council members, it might be a good idea to have a well-organized and informative orientation program that helps council members over the early hurdles in their adjustment to their new roles and responsibilities and lay the groundwork for effective working relations with their peers on the governing board and with staff.
Here are 10 important reasons to develop and implement a newly elected council-member orientation program:
1. Becoming an effective council member is hard work.
Local government professionals often underestimate the challenges involved for newly elected council members in making the transition from the role of citizen to that of effective council member. Many individuals elected to local government office have had little or no direct experience either with the organization they have been elected to lead or with local government, in general.
Newly elected council members have little opportunity to grow into the job. Immediately upon taking office, they are required to exercise the full authority of the office—no internship or apprenticeship here! In most communities, they have to become acquainted quickly with a wide variety of topics to which they have had little or no exposure. They are thrown into the policy-making arena to deal with topics ranging from planning and land use to public works, public safety and public finance, labor relations, and many specific service areas of the jurisdiction. Citizens almost immediately expect them to be experts on topics ranging from law enforcement to library collection information technology or social media policies. Although it will be appropriate and relatively easy for them to refer inquiries on many of these topics to staff, the public that elected them will expect them to know at least some basics about all these topics. Even the jargon that local government staff takes for granted can be foreign and perplexing to new members of the community’s board of directors.
Council members value and appreciate the assistance provided to them during this challenging transition.
2. Important decisions often will not wait.
It is rare for cities to have the luxury of deferring important decisions until newly elected council members are fully acclimated to their new roles and responsibilities. Issues often have their own critical path and may need to be addressed regardless of the tenure of council members. Newly elected council members in training are often required to make significant decisions on behalf of their communities.
An effective council member orientation program is not a guarantee that new council members will be able to rise to the occasion of tough and important decisions early in their tenure, but it certainly increases their chances. Such orientation programs are, in essence, survey courses in their roles and responsibilities as well as in the broad spectrum of issues the local government is facing. With the benefit of this context, council members are more likely to make better decisions.
3. Staff can demonstrate the importance of the transition.
Their personal success in this visible and important role is certainly going to be of great importance to those who are newly elected. A thoughtful and well-prepared orientation program clearly demonstrates the staff’s appreciation of the importance of their transition to having a public role. It is likely to be early in their tenure that new council members are most dependent on staff and will need their support. Through a thoughtful and informative orientation program, the local government manager and staff can demonstrate their commitment to assist and support council members in their important responsibilities.
4. The manager can learn about the new council member.
While the manager and staff may have some familiarity with the new council member, roles have changed since the election. An orientation presents a valuable opportunity for the city manager and senior staff to learn about the new member’s interests, knowledge of local government and the issues, and his or her experiences. Too often, the orientation may be viewed as a unilateral benefit where the new council member is the sole beneficiary. If the orientation is properly structured, it can be a good opportunity for the manager to engage, empower, and assess the new member’s knowledge and interests.
5. Government managers can jump-start relationships with council members.
It has been demonstrated in more than one poll of managers that the relationship between the council, the manager, and staff is one of the most important factors in determining the job satisfaction of the manager. It is certainly one of the most critical prerequisites for creating an effective council-manager-staff team. Without an effective team, local governments are not likely to be high-performing. An effective orientation program can create a good first impression by modeling the type of open and informative communication with council members to which staff is committed. Orientation is also an excellent time to encourage staff (not only the local government manager and the executive staff) and council members to get to know each other outside the spotlight and formalities of a council meeting. Developing greater familiarity can be very valuable to the newly elected council member as well as to the staff members who will be working with them.
6. Council members take on new legal responsibilities.
After their election, new council members have legal responsibilities much different from those of private citizens. They have financial disclosure obligations, and they will certainly (and suddenly) discover pitfalls to avoid, including conflicts of interest. The sooner they are aware of their new obligations and the full implications of their new status, the less likely they will run into problems.
7. Council members may be surprised about the public nature of community input engagement and group decision making.
Newly elected council members may have little or no experience in considering public comments and group decision making dynamics. It is even less likely that they will have had experience doing so in the very public atmosphere of the council meeting. The sooner they gain an understanding of these dynamics and learn how to function best in this environment, the more likely it is that they will be effective in their new role.
8. Staff can step back and review issues comprehensively.
Preparing for an orientation program can have some specific side benefits for staff. It provides them with an opportunity to step back from their busy workdays and take a more comprehensive look at what they are doing. It allows them to take a look at all the issues and projects under way and see their context in the broader organizational picture. It also reminds them of how their roles relate to the council and of the critical components necessary for the maintenance of a positive relationship with the council.
9. Council member issues and priorities can be identified early.
A council election campaign will often provide plenty of clues about the priorities of the newly elected members, but an orientation program offers an opportunity to confirm and clarify those priorities. It can often be interesting to learn what was and was not said (or, possibly, what was and was not meant) during the heat of the campaign. The orientation process can provide helpful information about the priorities of new council members that might not be immediately apparent through formal council meetings.
The local government manager can use the orientation to find out what expectations the new council members have of staff. Although a full discussion of expectations may be more appropriately handled during meetings or retreats with the entire council, the new member orientation is the first opportunity to bring to the surface issues that may affect establishing a good working relationship.
10. Council members learn of areas where they need more information.
Depending on a council member’s previous experience (e.g., as a board or commission member) or professional or volunteer work, the new member may well be stronger in some subject areas than in others. The orientation helps the member to identify these areas and find out about opportunities to gain more training or information.
Information in this blog post has been adapted from New Council Member Orientation: Developing a Positive Relationship.