Novak Consulting Bringing solutions into focus

Preparing councils for their work

by Julia Novak & John Nalbandian

The legitimacy of an individual council member’s power comes directly from the electorate, but respect and influence cannot be presumed; they have to be earned through action. The manager’s position, however, comes from professional qualifications to manage and provide policy guidance. In contrast with members of the council, the local government manager and professional staff benefit from a long-term familiarity with issues, specialization, and technical expertise and also from an organizational structure familiar to all.

As we know, linking politics and the work of a governing body with the management of government involves an ongoing set of tasks and challenges. The idea of council-manager government is that political and administrative realms can be in partnership and not dependent on the system of checks and balances that characterizes our state and federal governments, where separation of legislative and executive powers is valued.

The relationship between the manager and the elected officials sets a tone for the entire local government. Although some elected officials shy away from acknowledging a team or partner relationship between and among members of council and between the council and the staff, it is critical that the professional manager prepares the council for its work.

In part, this takes place as the manager helps the council build its capacity to work as a body, earning respect for one another and in an effective partnership with staff. In this article, we set out some of the ways the manager can facilitate the building of council capacity.


In a formal sense, the role of a governing body is set out in a typical statement such as “the council is charged with providing overall leadership for the local government by enacting laws and allocating resources for programs, services, and activities.” Individuals are elected by voters who, in turn, expect the council to listen to their concerns and address their individual issues.

As accurate as these phrases are, they do not fully convey the work of the council, and they are insufficient to help new councilors understand what is expected of them. In fact, short phrases only rarely capture the council’s work. Local norms and tradition are as important as any charter when it comes to understanding the council’s work. In addition, the composition of a council can influence how the council and the individual members see their roles.

To be effective, council members must talk about their work, what they think is expected of them, and what they expect of each other.


Although councils differ, three obstacles to council effectiveness are fundamental. First, councils that are willing to deal with big issues will have to confront conflicting political values. These values include representation, efficiency, social equity, and individual rights. Choices among values are not choices between right and wrong, and councils searching for “correct” answers to policy issues are bound to become frustrated.

Second, councilors must confront the difficult values work they are responsible for in the absence of hierarchythe mayor is not the boss. How many jobs have you had where no one was in charge?

The third obstacle is the difference in perspective between council and staff differences that are often difficult to understand because while council and staff use the same words, they speak a different language.

The tools we identify below are intended to enable a willing council to deal with difficult issues by building council capacity An important piece of that capacity is an effective partnership with staff


Adopting policy in open session where political values are constantly colliding is not for the faint at heart. What can the manager do to prepare the council, largely made up of amateur politicians (no disrespect intended) , for its work?

First, we want to emphasize that staff can help prepare the council for its work, but the council is responsible for that work, and the council bears a good deal of responsibility for building its own capacity The goal is a partnership, and staff members who take too much responsibility for the council’s work may actually create a dependency rather than an effective partnership.
In our collective 50 years of experience working with and for elected and appointed local government professionals, we have seen several practices that are effective tools in managers’ tool kits to help overcome the barriers to council and staff working effectively.


Ideally, the orientation process begins before the election, when individuals declare their candidacy for council. The manager’s opportunity to prepare them begins then: open the doors of city hall to the candidates and provide them with non confidential correspondence and copies of agenda materials. After the election, meet individually with those elected to find out their concerns; offer to allow them to explore areas of community business of particular interest.

As soon as practical after the election, the manager should arrange for a full orientation for new members of the governing body-invite the continuing members to attend as well-and provide them with “Government 101.” Brief them on current issues, the status of long-range plans and capital projects, and the budget process. In its orientation , Shoreline, Washington, covers both the basics of members’ service on the council as well as specific government projects.

Provide tours of operational facilities. Let them see the garage where the city cares for its fleet and even the shop where it stores and maintains its lawn mowers. A tour of water and waste water treatment facilities is fascinating and allows the behind- the-scene workers who do the city’s business every day to shine.

But also remember that if staff prepare the agenda for the orientation, the agenda likely will be based on what staff members think the council needs to know in order to be effective. Every new council member must face two crucial questions: How do I get my issues on the political agenda of other council members and staff? How do I influence other council members effectively? Rarely do staff-developed orientations include discussion of these kinds of questions.

That is why it is essential to put new members in contact with former council members who are regarded as exemplars and, if possible, make them part of the orientation. Importantly, these exemplars should represent a range of styles so new members can become acquainted with and relate to at least one former council member.

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