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COUNCIL & ADMINISTRATION RELATIONSHIP

This is one of the most complex relationships in local government, and is critical to achieving good governance.

A number of factors will contribute to a good relationship between the council and the administration. These include goodwill, understanding of roles, communication, protocols and a good understanding of legislative requirements.

FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO A GOOD RELATIONSHIP

Commitment and goodwill leads to better relationships

Both the administration and the council need to believe that it’s only possible to become a high-achieving municipality with a ‘good council’ and a ‘good administration’.

Because the relationship between council and the administration is complex and fragile, it requires commitment from both sides to make it work. It also requires the tenacity and will to work through the more complex and difficult issues, as well as the many smaller or even trivial matters which can and do arise.

Understanding roles is critical for good governance

The elected body and the administration must have a clear and sophisticated understanding of their different roles, and the fact that these operate within a hierarchy.

The administration is accountable to the CEO, who in turn, is accountable to the council. While the functions of the administration, which should be based on mutual respect and cooperation, complement the work of the council, it is not a partnership of equals.

A good understanding of the different roles in local government will contribute to good governance. The council’s role is firstly to develop the vision and then come up with the strategies and policies to achieve it. The administration’s role is to advise the council, implement council decisions and to oversee service delivery.

It helps if the administration recognises the complex political environments in which elected members operate and acknowledge that the whole system is based on democratic governance. Councillors similarly need to understand that it is a highly complex task to prepare information and provide quality advice on a very wide range of issues.

Understanding roles helps local government function better

It is the natural inclination for both the council and the administration to fill any gaps which the other side leaves in the performance of its functions. This can lead to role confusion and stress. For example, if councillors don’t believe the administration has a good system in place for recording and addressing residents’ complaints, they will raise residents’ complaints at council meetings rather than focussing on more strategic matters. If the administration believes there is an inadequate policy framework to deal with an issue, it will try to create one by delivering services and addressing issues in a particular way. Neither approach is ideal. It is far more desirable for each to perform their functions properly in the first place.

While the elected body and the administration have different roles, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have a legitimate interest in each other’s role. The elected body will be interested in the organisational structure and how effectively it can implement the council’s policies. While the Local Government Act 1989 clearly states that the organisational structure is the CEO’s responsibility, if the CEO does not properly consult the elected body before implementing or changing a structure, the council is likely to find some way of expressing its opinions. And most of these will not promote good governance.

Similarly, if the administration is not properly involved in policy or strategy development (for example, if proposed new policies are tabled without notice by council at council meetings), the administration will look for ways to have an impact. Apart from the new policies not having the benefit of professional input from the administration, there is likely to be confusion and delays in implementing the policy.

Open communication will enhance good governance

Finding ways to ensure that both the administration and the council are able to legitimately discuss issues, and seek information from each other is important for good governance.

There needs to be ongoing discussion between both areas about the functions of local government and how it works. This is particularly important for the administration’s senior management.

When the administration and councillors develop a shared understanding of how their roles work both in local government as a whole and in the individual municipality, this will also enhance good governance.

Being clear about non-statutory roles

Some councils give individual councillors specific responsibilities for projects, portfolios or issues. This can help to facilitate good communication, positive relationships and understanding between the elected members and the administration. However, if these arrangements are in place, they do not in any way lessen the accountability of councillors to inform themselves about the issues on which they are making decisions. For example, having a portfolio councillor for finance does not lessen the accountability of councillors to satisfy themselves that the financial reports are in order before voting to accept them.

These non-statutory roles can contribute to planning and advisory processes, but they also don’t replace the formal advice processes, nor in any way impact on the decision-making authority of council. In local government individual councillors don’t have executive authority. The council is also unable to delegate any decision-making powers to individual councillors.

Roles such as these should be based on discussion and consultation between the elected members and the administration and should also be documented in the form of protocols or position descriptions.

Managing contact between councillors and council officers

Many councils debate whether individual councillors and staff should have direct contact or whether all contact should be through the CEO and directors. The Chief Executive Officer is responsible for managing interactions between council staff and Councillors, including by ensuring that appropriate policies, practices and protocols are in place to define appropriate arrangements. In defining these arrangements Chief Executives should take the following matters into account

Councillors need to understand that:

  • Accountable advice needs to go through an organisational process which usually involves approval by a director or the CEO. Speaking directly to lower-level staff may result in councillors not being fully informed or receiving advice that hasn’t been formally endorsed by the administration.
  • Staff are not accountable to them individually, and in certain circumstances it is an offence for a Councillor to direct, or try to direct, a member of council staff.
  • They are classified as employers under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and, as such, can be liable for staff Workcover claims.

Council officers need to understand that:

  • They are not accountable to individual councillors and are not required to take direction from them. They are accountable to the whole council, through the management structure.
  • They should not provide advice to councillors unless it has been approved by the senior management or CEO.

Some councils can be successful in channelling all communications between council and the administration through the CEO or directors. However this can be impractical and can lead to resentment and misunderstandings. Councillors also generally don’t like to be told that they can’t talk to staff.

Appropriate and respectful policies, practices and protocols to guide interactions and communication can help both sides understand how they can assist each other and where there may be potential problems. Providing training and support for staff how to manage direct communication with councillors is a more positive approach than simply telling councillors that they aren’t allowed to talk to certain people.

FACT

“Good relationships between the administration and council are based on a sophisticated understanding of each other’s roles.”

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