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Can council evaluate the CAO?

by George B. Cuff
in Governance, Magazine
April, 2017

I hope to pen some thoughts around the issue of a council and its chief administrative officer (CAO) over the next few issues. I will examine some of the key issues surrounding this question including: why evaluate; the inherent difficulties in a layperson council evaluating its CAO; what should be evaluated; who should be a part of the process; how and when it should be done; and what should be the results.

Why Evaluate?

There have been a number of texts and articles written on the evaluation of chief officers, largely in the public sector, but in the private sector as well. I have purposely chosen to ignore those (to the extent possible) as I meander my own way through this rather perplexing issue of “why evaluate”; “who should evaluate”; “what should you evaluate”; and so on. I read extensively on related topics and teach almost continuously on the tenets of local government. However, while being cognizant that there are many schools of thought regarding the purpose of evaluation and the merits of doing so, I have not previously focused on this issue.

Show appreciation

While it may seem obvious, one of the principal reasons for doing an evaluation of the CAO is to provide a particular point in time to show appreciation for the work that is being done. When a council and their CAO connect as frequently as weekly (and sometimes more often than that), it is easy to ignore the fact that these are largely business discussions and often around a contentious issue. Such encounters do not lend themselves to “pats on the back” for a job well done. And, even if they do, the words may be heard as a pacifier to largely heated words surrounding the issue of concern. Showing concern means taking the time out of busy schedules just to say “thank you” and, by doing so, “you are worth every moment of our special attention to this exercise.”

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Better understand the position

Sitting down with the CAO to discuss his or her performance also provides an excellent opportunity for members of council to better understand the requirements of the position. Most council members begin their term of office without much awareness of the job of a CAO – other than to say “no” to their most recent request! Thus, a sit-down session that includes reference to the CAO’s position description provides each councillor with clarity as to the nuances of the position.

Prime opportunity for organizational feedback

The conduct of a thorough CAO assessment needs to include a discussion between the CAO and council relative to their respective appraisal of how well the organization as a whole is performing. This presumes a sufficiently healthy relationship between council and CAO, wherein the latter can outline his or her concerns about aspects of the organization and personnel who may not be functioning at the standard expected. It may also be an opportunity for the CAO to outline his or her ideas of future changes to structure, which may be expedited by a planned retirement or forced resignation.

Recognize the challenges

While some members of council may have a healthy assessment of the myriad of challenges faced in this role by the CAO, it is unlikely that all will share that perception. Some may question why the CAO “makes so much money,” whereas others may have infrequent contact with city hall and thus not appreciate the full extent of these challenges. Hearing directly from the CAO as to the serious challenges he or she is facing would provide a healthy launching pad for further discussion about how council can be realistic and helpful in meeting those challenges. This will not, of course, occur if there is limited confidence in council’s ability to keep such discussions behind closed doors. (I see this as the most significant and troubling inhibitor to maximizing the positives of an evaluation exercise.)

Hear about the managerial style

A good assessment needs to allow the CAO to express how he or she believes their style impacts the others in the organization. The CAO should be given the opportunity to share what constitutes the key elements of his or her style and how that is expected to bring out the best in the members of the management team. This ought to reflect a candid assessment by the CAO of strengths and weaknesses in style that contribute to openness and candour in discussions with subordinates, as well as aspects of that style that the CAO feels could be enhanced.

Appreciate the need for succession planning

Whereas the CAO has the lead responsibility to choose his or her replacement for temporary absences (e.g., sickness or vacation), the council is responsible for ensuring that there is an adequate replacement in the organization on at least a temporary basis should there be a sudden change in the employment of the CAO. The “hit by the bus” scenario has been oft-quoted with some degree of humour, but has in fact happened. As well, the CAO may be fired – which again, may come with little to no advance warning. A thorough and candid discussion between the council and CAO should include a discussion about what do we do as a council to ensure stability in the organization should an unexpected departure occur. (It is my view that each council needs to have a succession planning policy and plan in their toolkit in order to thoughtfully address any such contingency.)

Discuss/clarify the future

A CAO-council roundtable discussion as part of the assessment allows some opportunity to “blue-sky” the future. What do we as a council expect to see? What does the CAO expect to see? Are we essentially on the same wavelength? Do we have solid strategies in place to deal with the expected contingencies? What are the current threats to our ongoing viability? And, what are we doing to address those potential threats in a thoughtful, planned manner?

Recognize the “one employee” relationship

This assessment is the purview of a council and their CAO only. This is not something orchestrated by the personnel department. It is not a brief, casual discussion between the mayor and CAO. This assessment represents the fact that council understands and appreciates the special relationship it has with one employee – the CAO.  MW

Next Article: The difficulties in evaluating a CAO.

GEORGE B. CUFF, FCMC, our governance zone expert, has been involved in local government in one way or another since 1970. He has been a recreation and youth specialist, a department head, a mayor for 12 years, and a consultant/advisor to municipalities since 1976. He is the author of Off the Cuff: A Collection of Writings by George B. Cuff – Volumes 1, 2, and 3 and Making a Difference: Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders, Volumes 1 and 2, published by Municipal World, as well as dozens of magazine articles and columns in Municipal World since 1984.

as published in Municipal World, May 2013

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