Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth HughesLocal Democracy

Building trust and confidence starts at the top

elected members mentoring

by Elizabeth Hughes, Strategy & Communication. elizabeth hughes

On a pre-Christmas “Council induction” roadie with my LGLH (www.LGLH.co.nz) colleagues, a newly minted councillor was feeling very anxious about the role he had recently been elected to because, he said, “I don’t feel very well equipped to do this.”

A second termer, at a different council, reported that she honestly felt overwhelmed sometimes by the complexity of the issues she is asked to address but added, “I’m not likely to admit that to anyone in this organisation.”

And quite worryingly, a fifth term councillor asked very genuinely (and without sarcasm) during a discussion about financial strategies, “Does our council have one of those?”

These sorts of admissions, made in isolation, may not mean that much. However, when concentrated over a short period, and being just a sample of many similar views/misunderstandings that were expressed by new or returning governors, they deserve reflection.

Especially in light of the most common overarching challenge that councils said they faced.

Generally speaking, all the councils we visited – from the smallest to the largest – faced the usual and well-expressed challenges of funding, affordability, the Government’s legislative programme and policy statements, water reform, ageing populations, housing, roading, growth/lack of growth, and climate change.

But the most consistently mentioned challenge, and usually near the top of the list, was the lack of trust and confidence their communities had in their respective council/s.

In line with this, was the strong desire of elected members to “make a difference” (which is why they got elected) – and then not really being entirely clear how they were going to achieve this.

Elected members arrive in their role with different values and perspectives, varying life experiences and from diverse backgrounds and experience. And all have genuinely good intention.

However, many also are truly not clear about what governance is and what their leadership role is – even some of those who have been around the traps before. This is not to say they are ignorant or dumb, nor are they misunderstanding in a deliberate or wilful way. They are just really unclear.

Correspondingly, they do not see how their lack of understanding (and performance as governors) can contribute to a lack of trust and confidence within their communities.

At the beginning of the triennium, there is probably more that could be done to enable elected members to understand this better. Here are some suggestions …

  1. Let them talk about “leadership” and what it means to them – don’t assume they already know. Create absolute clarity – no assumptions – around what real governance is and measure progress over time. Revisit regularly – not once every three years or just when things go wrong.
  2. Elected members do not come pre-programmed to understand the Local Government Act, the Rating Act, the RMA, the LGOIMA, or any of the other 200 pieces of legislation that fall under local government’s remit.

Allowing them sufficient time to come to grips with this stuff is way more important than filling their heads with operational details about the type of filtration used at the water treatment plant, the grade of plastic used in recycling bags or the number of books issued by the library.

  1. Not everyone learns the same way. Most elected members don’t have degrees or sat through lectures as a way of learning things and gaining qualifications (unlike most managers). Their learnings are from life experience, adventures (and the requisite mistakes this invokes), stubbornness, “the school of hard knocks” and from learning to make other people like them.

Endless power points with the odd field trip thrown in is not a necessarily a great learning environment to “look high and look long”.

  1. Investing in mentoring and/or buddying would not go amiss for first term councillors.
  2. Challenge them to address diversity gaps and to consider why this really matters.
  3. No matter how articulate, openminded or smart – all elected members deserve to be given every opportunity to ask questions. Every question has the potential for illuminating discussions.

Building trust and confidence comes from the top – and from both sides of the fence.


This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of Local Government Magazine.

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