Plan the work, then work the plan
Following municipal elections, new councils are soon after off and running, starting on their new term of office.
After the inaugurations, municipal staff help orient old and new councillors alike and the work of municipal governance begins.
Many Starting Budget Discussions
Many new councils immediately begin their budget deliberations in December and extend them into January. After staff explain the financial position and needs of the municipality, some councils go about seeking public input.
Councils with a majority of veteran members may carry on with their past direction – discussing whether this year’s increase needed to be 2%, 3% or 4%. Alternatively, councils with a majority of new members often begin discussions on how they can get each member’s “pet project” into (or out of) the new year’s spending. And a few councils may simply and quickly approve their capital and operating budgets.
Common Strategy, Common Goals
While fiscally prudent – an early budget can mean early tendering and reduced costs for major projects – jumping right into budget debates for a new council can have significant drawbacks.
First, a new council needs time to gel as a team. How well do the new councillors know their colleagues “around the horseshoe”? Has there been time for each councillor to understand each other and therefore respect their positions and ideas? In what direction is council headed? How well do the new councillors know the senior staff? Have they been able to build a rapport with the public servants who work to offer their best, professional advice?
Where the danger lay is best described in a Tanzanian proverb: “A boat cannot go forward if each rows his own way.”
Second, each budget should advance the goals of council and help address the needs, dreams, and aspirations of local residents and businesses. Did the council simply add or remove a few favored projects, add an inflationary factor, and keep the rest of the operations intact? How does the new budget fit within the overall strategy or strategic direction for the town? What are the innovations in the new budget? Or, did council abdicate the role of strategy to senior staff and/or the mayor? Will councillors find out about the municipality’s strategic focus at the mayor’s upcoming “State of the City” address?
Will this year’s budget drive the municipality’s strategy? Or, will the council’s and the community’s strategy drive the budget?
The late James W. Frick, former VP of Notre Dame University, said it well: “Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I’ll tell you what they are.”
And, Joe Biden, US Vice-President, said something similar in September 2008: “My dad used to have an expression: ‘Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.’”
So, what is a new council to do?
Plan the Work and Work the Plan
The first priority for new councils should be developing a Strategic Plan.
After listening to the public during the recent election, bring those the ideas, hopes and dreams to the council table. Use the information from the professional staff as a foundation and get the senior staff involved as resources in the strategy work.
While one must recognize that every participant will approach this work from a different perspective, it will be important for new councils to meet for a suitable period of time – a half-day or a full-day – to develop a draft strategic plan, including vision, mission, values, and goals. The best version I’ve used is in the form of a “Challenge Map.” Then, turn it over to staff to develop operational plans based on the overall strategies and goals. Once council reviews and approves this direction, the budget work follows logically.
This approach might be more difficult for a council’s first year – because budgets should get approved at least by late spring. Yet, strategic planning now will help set the course for the municipality and provide a foundation for this council’s future budgets as well. Those future budget discussions should absolutely start with strategic planning updates or revamps.
Done right, strategic planning can help provide solid direction throughout the new council’s term of office. After all, as Yogi Berra told us: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” MW
Dave Augustyn served as the Mayor of the Town of Pelham and a Niagara Regional Councillor from 2006 to 2018. A version of this article appeared as an online blog post for Dave Augustyn NOW.