My book, A Matter of Choice – Ethical Municipal Governance provides a list of suggested briefing materials for members of municipal council. Feedback from one reader points out municipal managers are busy people; it takes time to compile the suggested briefing information. Another worried that some councillors may be overwhelmed if too much information is provided. A third reader pondered whether it is the responsibility of senior managers to educate municipal politicians and/or to spoon feed slow learners. Here are my thoughts.
Yes, it is the responsibility of the CAO and team members to provide councillors with all the resources needed to make informed deciisions. Successful municipal politicians and CAO’s are almost always leaders who are committed to continuous learning.
I agree with political theorist Robin Morgan when she writes: “Knowledge is power. Information is power. The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.” Knowledge enables informed municipal decision making.
So what if questions are asked which make bureaucrats (or politicians) feel uncomfortable or that lead to changes in the way things are done? More information is better than not enough. Clarity should always be the goal. A municipality in which all of council and staff are shown respect and trust, where roles and responsibilities are clearly understood and where each knows the responsibilities, processes, legal requirements under which they are expected to operate, is desirable.
It is equally important that elected policy makers know the challenges faced by each department of government. If council is to operate on a solid footing, a well-planned, in-house orientation is required. This must be in addition to any workshop or conference organized by the province, state or municipal association. Care needs to be taken to ensure a comprehensive briefing and exchange of information takes place without information overload occurring. There are ways to do this. A knowledgeable facilitator can often help in customizing a program. Open, honest dialogue between council and staff who do the briefings is to be encouraged. One-on-one discussions with anyone who has missed part or all of the orientation or who requires individual mentoring should be provided.
When newly elected councillors receive much of their information from outside sources and/or are schooled primarily by council colleagues on how the municipality operates, it is a recipe for problems.