By Mike Conduff, ICMA-CM
I am fortunate to meet with a good number of newly elected officials in the governance training I provide. When I ask them how things are going in their elected world, they often describe it as “drinking from a fire hose,” which reminds me how much they are trying to learn about our management world in a short period of time on an extremely public stage.
“I had no idea how much there was to learn,” is another common rejoinder. As is, “People have no concept of how much time this takes.”
Still, so many of these newbies are truly idealistic about their commitment to local government, sharing thoughts like, “This is where citizen services are delivered,” or, “We truly impact people’s lives.”
At this early point in their elected lives they are hungry for knowledge, for process understanding, and for accomplishments. They ran for office to make a difference and they want to do it right away, not after a few years of paying dues or learning the ropes.
Using the tools we often talk about in this department—candidate orientations, newly elected official orientations, departmental tours, council retreats, and frequent individual meetings—most managers ably assist in the learning and skill-building arenas. My sense, however, is that too often we forget the value of early wins for newly elected officials.
They have just come off of that first election, are getting a taste of the true value of elected service, still have stars in their eyes, and we want to talk to them about 5-, 10-, and 20-year goals. We tell them that the budget is an implementation document and often that occurs months after swearing in.
We remind them that they only influence policy as a group and that individually they really have no power to affect change. All of this is true, and if we leave it at only that, we are diminishing the fervor their election has fostered for them. Instead, we are creating a false impression of the manager’s office as being the place where council dreams go to die.
Help Channel Their Interests
Viewed in this light, it is no wonder I field questions like, “How do I get the city manager to listen to my ideas?” Or I hear statements like, “All our county manager knows how to say is no.” It has to be incredibly frustrating to have energy and enthusiasm to invest only to be continually reined in.
What I advise managers with newly elected officials is to help them with worthwhile policy development activities that legitimately further the ends of the organization and community, while inculcating the value of the partnership between the elected and appointed components of the governance equation. In your early meetings with them, find out what area of the organization’s outcomes speaks to them most clearly.
Do they cherish sustainability? If so, help them think about how to reduce the organization’s carbon footprint with things as simple as solar trash compactors in the downtown area or in parks, or by pursuing electricity savings with LED street lights. If they are pumped about resident services, help them take a look at some of the National League of Cities enterprise programs to determine if they would like to champion one of those for the organization.
Assign them a staff support person who can help them understand what has been done in the past, any pitfalls that might exist for your particular community, and how their work can further the ends of the organization. This demonstrates early on that staff can be relied on as team members and facilitators of policy implementation.
Make sure you stay or are kept in the loop so you can speak knowledgeably about their work when you meet with them. Foster their interaction with the appropriate folks in your organization so they understand the depths of knowledge and ethics that your team contains.
Act as a go-between with them and more senior elected members who may have become focused on the more challenging and long-term issues. Be seen as a trusted ally more than a roadblock.
A Few Cautions
Now, let me also offer a few cautions. Be clear that you are not inviting new councilmembers to cross over the policy line to do staff work. Help them understand that by being a champion they improve the chances their ideas will get adopted, but adoption is not guaranteed.
Make sure staff does not have a big objection to their ideas before they get too far down the road with them. With these caveats in place, you can improve your own, the staff’s, and the council’s believability.
As my former elected official colleague Jim Hunt so straightforwardly puts it, “Mike, if you want me to help you foster the coalition and support the 20-year vision it requires, you have to help me earn enough early wins to build my and the council’s community credibility.”