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The word on the street

by George Cuff
in Governance, Management

I have written extensively on the need for a council to establish a healthy, positive relationship with its administration. Fortunately, this is the norm for many municipalities across Canada. In other communities, however, the norm reflects a lack of trust, the undermining of staff (or council), questions at public meetings that reek of sarcasm, and the sense that if the report comes from the administration, council must query it to see what the real story is.

Council and Administration: On the Same Team

For whatever reason, the concept of council and its administration serving as two components of the same team escapes the logic of some. They act as though the public has elected them as the opposition or the truant officers, expected to “keep an eye” on staff as though the latter were regularly fleecing the cash register and/or spending funds recklessly.

It is true that a member of staff may act in such a manner as to bring discredit upon the municipality. The same may be true of a member of council. Such behaviour, albeit not commonplace, has occurred in some communities. These isolated examples, though, should not cloud the good reputations of thousands of elected officials and staff. Unfortunately, such examples confirm in the minds of those who find suspicion a natural fit, the potential of others in their municipality to be guilty of similarly corrupt behaviour. This lends heightened credibility to accepting the disparaging commentary of those on the street.

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Openness to Public Input – But, with a Caveat

There will never be any suggestion in this column that council members should not be open to hearing the concerns and commentary of the public. This, indeed, is one of the principal functions and expectations of a member of council.

One of the frequent complaints I hear from administrators, however, is the penchant for council members to believe whatever they hear on the street. That is, there is a sense that whatever a councillor hears on the street is all too quickly accepted as the gospel; in fact, it might be no more than the bleating of a disgruntled former employee, or the musing of someone who heard from someone who are passing along what they thought they heard from someone else!

This caution with regard to believing without checking everything you hear “on the street” is well warranted, as such information has the potential to be a dangerous and destructive thing if not taken with a grain of salt. (I heard recently of one CAO who was berated by the mayor in front of staff because of “reports” that the CAO was seen golfing during the middle of the afternoon one day. As it turns out, and as Paul Harvey says, the “rest of the story” is that the CAO was on vacation – and has since relocated elsewhere!)

While council members ought to be open to hearing from anyone who wants to express a concern about some aspect of the municipality’s service delivery, the comments being expressed often emanate from someone who has very little understanding of how the municipality normally handles such incidents, and/or by those who have next to no concept of what the legislation requires.

Impact of Words on Morale

Morale is impacted by a number of factors in any organization. Included in that list is the administration’s perception of the degree of council’s trust in their performance and ability. Indeed, the tone at the top is established by the council and by the chief administrative officer. Both need to understand the tremendous impact that their words have on the sense of well-being of the administration. If council and the CAO (and senior management) are cognizant of the potential impact of their public pronouncements, then that sense of confidence will likely translate into improved service and a culture of trust between those directing what services are to be provided and those actually delivering the service.  MW

A version of this article was published in Municipal World, April 2006

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Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Norman Leach’s article: Political acumen in the workplace: Tips for skillfully navigating organizational politics. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

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 seven books on local government policy governance. His latest book is Life’s Lessons Inside City Hall – a collection of short stories and he has also written hundreds of articles and columns in Municipal World since 1984.

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