Local Government Magazine
Elizabeth Hughes

There’s no I in team

elizabeth hughes

By Elizabeth Hughes

Becoming a newly elected local authority member can be a tricky and difficult transition.

By now, newly elected mayors and councillors will have their shiny new nameplates, a comfy meeting chair, new iPads or cell-phones, keys to the building, a security pass, a car park, maybe a mug, and somewhere between 20 and 2000 new Facebook “frenemies”.

The induction process will have been completed, key staff met, and the Code of Conduct adopted.  There will probably even have been a Council retreat to look at strategic priorities and to get an opportunity to really know their colleagues.

So really it should be plain sailing now.

Except, often overlooked, is the tricky psychological shift that needs to happen from competing in a popularity contest (local government edition) to operating as an effective member of a team.

For some, this is a transition they genuinely struggle to make – not supported well by the way our local government system is structured.

Being a personable “rock star” is a big contrast to being required to make decisions in the best interests of a hugely diverse range of people and communities.   It is especially difficult when the diverse range of people and communities are not necessarily those who voted for you – or when “best interests” require some very tough decisions.

While individual elected members can and do make impactful changes – understanding how to successfully achieve this takes time and different skills.

To get ideas across the line and to make the differences that matter, newly elected members sometimes need to learn how get more colleagues supporting ideas, than opposing them.   Being the loudest voice and closing one’s mind to alternative views, generally does not generate the numbers to get ideas across the line.  And at the end of the day, achieving success in politics is a numbers game and knowing how to bring others along with you.

Compounding this is the requirement for elected members to be self-employed.  This reinforces a notion of ‘singular interest’ (at least single minded about the issues that are being stood for) – rather than a notion of being part of a team effort.

Operating in this way can contribute to elected members not focusing on what is the very best collective outcome or decision – but instead – competing for the best sound bites and headlines.

Maybe it is time to revisit how elected members could be better supported to make this transition, as well as ensuring the range and quality of people who put their names forward, is not compromised by pay or time away from their other jobs.

Perhaps…

  • a four-year term (to enable longer term focus)
  • an ‘elected member’ employment contract (once elected)
  • standard performance measures for behaviour, participation, contributions
  • 80 percent of existing income paid during time as an elected member (with an expectation that 20 percent of time would be committed to maintenance of an existing job/role)
  • a minimum lower income limit is set (so those on little or no income are remunerated appropriately)
  • the first three months in the job involving formal training – decision-making, legislation, local government finances, policies and policy processes, listening skills, engagement, negotiating, team-building and being a good employer
  • an independent elected members’ Employment Commissioner
  • plus a comprehensive civics education programme suitable for schools and willing ‘older’ learners.

Mostly, as I listen to elected members discuss what makes being a new kid on the block really challenging, is the phrase “there’s just so much to learn”.

Other common challenges include:

  • finding enough hours in the day to juggle a personal/business life with council life
  • the amount of reading to do (and sitting through so many PPT presentations)
  • getting to grips with Standing Orders and reimbursement forms
  • getting their heads around things that they never imagined would need to be of interest to them eg wet wipes, CPTED, hot mix, e-scooters, spatial plan etc
  • having to make difficult decisions.

Standing alone and repeatedly banging the same drum means some councillors never successfully make the transition to achieving great things.  And while they might be heard in a few echo-chambers – they will not get the influence they need to get the numbers where it counts.

That’s where teamwork matters.

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