Local Councillors play a fundamental role at the community level in our democracy. They participate in shaping the places they live in and act in the best interest of their communities. In so doing, they come to understand the most difficult and most critical pressures facing their communities.
Local Government is often a training ground for other leadership roles, whether in government at all levels or in other walks of life. That’s why, following Council elections, a good post-election induction process is vital. It ensures that the new Council understands the legal responsibilities of its role, builds a sense of camaraderie and willingness to work together, and sets up parameters to guide future decisions about priorities and programmes.
After being postponed twice by Covid-19, NSW Council elections were held in December 2021. This delay meant the 2021 post-election induction process was particularly challenging because it compressed the time frame within which to meet legislative deadlines. It also required newly elected Councillors and their Councils to complete mandatory tasks during the Christmas break.
Moreover, because the next elections are scheduled for September 2024, the upcoming Council term is shorter than the usual three years, so new Councils have less time to set goals and priorities.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the effectiveness of this term needs to be impacted. Elections and the changes that come with them are a great time for Councils to change and improve internal strategies and priorities, leading to better community outcomes. So, what can we learn from those going out, those coming in, and the challenging circumstances of this election to make the next Council term a better one?
Nine suggestions for improving post-election induction & Councillor impact
As part of our support training and strategic planning with Council clients, Centium has introduced a new process which has resulted in the recording of fifty-six interviews with individual Councillors, both new and outgoing, from four different Councils.
The interviews are de-identified and anonymous, allowing all Councillors to speak freely in a ‘thinking out loud’ environment, away from the rigors and restrictions of public debate. Councillors were encouraged to:
- Express their own aspirations and priorities
- Consider the most important issues facing constituents and their communities
- Articulate the challenges and difficulties they experienced during their term on Council (for outgoing Councillors)
Here, we have summarised the information collected so that it can be harnessed to shape and direct the support new Councillors need to fulfil their roles.
Induction and Professional Development
- Improved education
“We need to work harder to make sure the Councillors understand better. We need so much more education – not just about the programs, but about how to work together.”
It is easy for staff to imagine that new Councillors know more than they actually do. The induction process is important to educate Councillors on a range of issues.
- A better understanding of role and Council operations
“We needed Code of Meeting practice training, what our role is and how to conduct yourself in a meeting. It could cover the rules of debate, points of order, chairing meetings. How do you write a notice of motion? When should it be a motion rather than general business? It took me ages to work out why you get the same information for different kinds of meetings.”
New Councillors need to be presented with an overview of the operations of the Council, and an understanding of their role. They need legislative training on Code of Conduct requirements, particularly to understand conflicts of interest and how to identify and manage those. Code of Meeting practice training is also important.
- New Councillors need to be educated on development issues
“We need better ways of accessing training options, better standard Councillor training every 12 months that’s relevant, and that’s opt in, especially when there are changes to legislation. What about staff briefings on webinars so we can access them when we need them?”
Education on things like the terminology, impacts, level of control, and an understanding of how to get better solutions to resolve community conflict. Ongoing training is required for all Councillors to ensure they keep up to date during their entire term of Council. Councils can be proactive about anticipating the skills and knowledge for Councillors’ continuing professional development. Site visits help new Councillors get a sense of what’s going on.
- Better responses to community requests
“If we have oversight at a high level then we can trust the systems to handle our requests too.”
New Councillors are contacted immediately after their election by constituents with issues, concerns and complains, and a few key staff could be nominated as contacts to receive the most common of these and also to explain constraints and realities. Timeframes for responses to requests are an important part of the equity of the complaints handling system, and Councillors need clear and reliable information about how requests will be handled and reasonable response timeframes.
New Councillors need to learn to understand and trust the broader prioritising process that exists to handle community requests, so that they can maintain a strategic overview of quality and direction without getting inappropriately involved in individual matters.
- Online access to key information
“We need something a bit more refined so that critical timely and relevant documents can be accessed quickly. We need this to counteract Councillors’ complaints that they didn’t receive something - if it’s on the portal then people can go and refresh their own memory rather than making an issue of it. The portal needs a file structure and an index."
Many Councils are implementing an information portal that is hosted on their intranet. Full access and visibility to shared information should be implemented – a Councillor calendar for events and attendance, reports on resolutions status, business papers.
Working with Council Staff
“I’ve experienced senior staff who worked very hard to show that they were here for all of us. We had a serious level of respect for those staff. There were people who made sure it was a ‘no embarrassment’ Council. The trust needs to be developed to have an exchange of views with Councillors in a non-adversarial way.”
- Adaptive communication
“Some of us have day jobs, and I try to phone staff in my lunch hour and leave a message, but they ring back when we’re at work too.”
Different Councillors work in different ways, they are busy people and so are staff. Communication between Councillors and staff needs to adapt to the different ways that each are working – including use of emails or phone calls and the understanding timing that suits all parties.
- Active engagement and input
“There needs to be more briefings with Councillors before issues come to Council, and actually with enough time to have an influence and in the shaping process. Councillors should be taking an active role, not to take away from the role of the specialists. We shouldn’t be left till the end of the process with something we don’t want to support.”
At its best the communication between Councillors and staff is a genuine engagement, to build up the common knowledge base, so that there’s more consensus.
Building Camaraderie and Consensus
- A positive culture
“We need to build the capacity for robust debate, that is based on respect and good humour, and helps to develop good relationships. “
There are positive initiatives that can be put in place to create and build a positive culture amongst the governing body.
- Strategies focused on building relationships and managing interpersonal issues
“The strategic retreats were quite good. They didn’t need to be so salubrious, but it was a strategic meeting together and an opportunity to talk things through. They could substitute the briefings with more strategic meetings, it needs to happen more frequently. Say check-ins quarterly – around the bigger issues and having more input as Councillors. Otherwise it’s not genuine dialogue, it doesn’t feel like we’re coming together to have genuine input. “
Social occasions can offer Councillors the informal opportunities to get to know each other. Some difficult individuals can work to derail the culture and cause churn at the senior level. One or two people can do so much damage, and everyone needs to have better strategies for dealing with difficult Councillors who may cause divisions, so that the focus is always on the best interests of the whole community.
Putting learnings & suggestions into action
It can sometimes be difficult to drive change, but the weeks and months post-election is one of the best times to implement new strategies within Council.
Centium has been working with several NSW Councils both before and after the recent election to ensure that Councils and Councillors are set up for success. We support Councils and Councillors to ensure that they are best placed to make good decisions that benefit their communities. We can provide:
- Confidential Councillor interviews to identify issues and solutions
- Councillor support: benchmarking and service review
- Facilitated workshops with Councillors and Executive Staff
- Councillor professional development
- Code of Conduct and Code of Meeting Practice training
The governing body plays a crucial role in a highly functioning Council, and specific strategies can be introduced to ensure that Councillors are guided and supported to enhance the reputation and performance of their Councils.
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