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Leading the small army inside local government

by Shari-Anne Doolaege
in Governance, Leadership

Five ways council can help strengthen the staff team

A municipal council has a small army of internal and external experts at their disposal. They draw on these resources to fulfill municipal purposes and accomplish strategic priorities.

The CAO has a pivotal role in the council-staff interface. As council’s one employee, the CAO is ultimately responsible for directing the overall administrative machinery. They are accountable for reporting organizational progress back to the council.

Even though they do not direct staff (beyond their CAO), municipal councils can also play an important role in strengthening the municipal staff team. Here are five ways councils can have a positive impact.

1. Professional Development

Council approves an annual operating budget, which includes staff professional development. Staff training opportunities bolster operational capacity and enhance loyalty to the organization. Investing in professional development is wise since it fosters innovation and can reduce turnover in the organization. Professional development for council members is important too. Elected officials need training to fulfill their leadership roles and they need to take opportunities to network with leaders from other jurisdictions.

2. Social Equity

Council can insist that social equity principles be integrated into HR policies to help level the playing field for individuals from disadvantaged social groups. Advancement and promotion should be based on merit, favouring the most qualified candidates. However, a systemic problem persists where opportunities to develop “merit” are not equal. For example, in many organizations, an “average Joe” receives more mentorship, coaching, advice, referrals, and approbation than an “average Fatheema.” Council can deliberately approve HR policies that support social equity by measuring levels of diversity and gender parity.

3. Benefit Plans

Council’s policy domain and budget approval also includes health benefit plans that are very meaningful to staff and their families. A health benefit incentive can help the organization to attract and retain good employees. Rather than taking a minimalist approach when considering the budget for health benefits, council should approve the most attractive benefit options that the municipality can reasonably afford. Strong health and safety policies are also needed to ensure staff have a safe and respectful workplace.

4. Clear Direction

If staff build paths to a surprising destination or fail to build paths at all, council needs to ask themselves, “Have we provided clear direction?” It would be unfair for a council to blame their CAO if the “wheels fall off the wagon” on a municipal issue when council did not provide clear direction. Conversely, administration should provide clear advice to the council on agenda items in a written request for decision (RFD) format. The system should function with checks and balances, such as internal financial controls and regular staff performance evaluations by their supervisors.

5. Healthy Interactions

The CAO is council’s first point of contact for any organizational questions. For efficiency, subordinate staff are regularly asked by the CAO to close the loop and respond to a council member’s inquiry. Council members also interact with staff below the CAO level during council and committee meetings. It is important for council and staff to keep these interactions healthy and professional by maintaining proper conduct. Council considers the advice from their “small army” of staff experts and they can ask questions with a respectful and encouraging tone. At its core, organizations are made up of individuals. A little kindness and appreciation for each other can go a long way to keep everyone pulling in the same direction. Healthy interactions among council members also help to set a respectful tone at the top of the organization.

While it is true that council typically has one employee – the CAO – council’s impact can be much broader. Indeed, it can strengthen the organization on many fronts through policies, budget decisions, setting clear direction, and maintaining healthy interactions.  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Else Khoury’s article: Fine line in the staff-councillor relationship. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.


Shari-Anne Doolaege, MPA, Q.Arb, CLGM, is the President of SAGE Analytics Inc., a municipal consulting company based out of Edmonton, Alberta. She provides governance training and evaluation, serves as a municipal Integrity Commissioner, and is a qualified arbitrator.

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