Blog post written by Cheryl Hilvert, ICMA Midwest Regional Director

This blog is a summary of the ICMA UNITE: A Digital Event session titled, “First Time Administrators: Building a Team with Your Elected Officials; It Doesn’t Have to be a Contact Sport!” on Friday, September 25 from 4:00 to 4:45 PM ET. The session is part of the First Time Administrator’s educational programming track, designed to the work of both new and seasoned managers. 

Establishing a good working relationship with elected officials is clearly some of the most important work of the effective local government manager.  Yet do we always spend the time we should on this very important relationship?  Or do we often approach it as a contact sport?

ICMA’s eBook, Making it Work:  The Essentials of Council/Manager Relations, suggests that when elected officials and professional managers work together to create a positive and productive relationship, they can increase the odds that the following desirable outcomes of good governance will occur:

  • clear policy direction provided by policy makers
  • effective implementation of the policy by the manager and staff
  • shared confidence among the elected officials, manager, and staff
  • respect for varying roles and responsibilities
  • effective service delivery to the public
  • increased confidence by the public in the local government

Without an effective relationship, the opposite is likely to occur.  Policy direction is not clear, trust is low, role conflicts can increase and service delivery to the public is affected.  Making it Work offers some sage advice in establishing and maintaining the important relationship between the manager and his/her elected officials, including:

  1. Work with your elected officials to establish and clarify roles.  The essence of the council/manager form of government is predicated on the strong combination of the elected officials’ political connection to the community and the professional expertise of the manager.  Understanding this model of governance can contribute to improved role understanding and acceptance, allow you to better support elected officials in their policy making role and help them to understand how working with and through you is the best way to accomplish their ultimate vision.
  2. Work to build the trust and confidence that your elected officials have in you. You can always build that credibility by demonstrating honesty and integrity; by presenting issues fully, honestly and without “spin;” and by giving credit and public recognition to the elected officials, not yourself.
  3. Never underestimate the importance of your interpersonal and communication skills. Technical skills are important and often are the skills for which managers seek training and continuing education.  However, technical skills alone are not enough to build the important relationship between a manager and his/her elected officials.  Our “soft skills” are what build relationships and we need to consistently work to ensure our emotional intelligence and interpersonal and communication skills are always at their best.
  4. Follow through on all requests –whether big or small. Experienced managers know that to build the “political capital” you need to do the “big’ things, you must do the small, everyday things well. Build the trust and confidence of your elected officials by giving the small things the appropriate attention they deserve, just like the big ones!
  5. Recognize and be responsive to what is important to them. Whether a minor citizen request or a policy decision with which you do not personally agree, follow through and perform all tasks with professionalism.  Doing so will send a powerful message that you respect your elected officials as well as the policy making role they provide.
  6. Manage the Group Process. Challenges are normal for “teams” or groups of people.  Always ensure you communicate clearly, seek clarity when needed to fully understand their direction and be quick to help when personality problems or disagreements affect the working relationship.
  7. Be open to Feedback from your Elected Officials and others. Feedback is important to all of us and, while sometimes tough to hear, it can help us grow both personally and professionally. Always remember to be “curious first and critical second” and it will help you to better understand and accept the feedback you receive.

So, what types of tools can help you do the important work of building relationships with your elected officials? Making it Work offers some great suggestions, including:

  1. Elected Official Orientation Program. Development of an early orientation program is both a responsibility and an opportunity for managers.  Effective orientation programs help new council members better understand the roles and responsibilities of their new position as well as build some positive working relationships with their colleagues and with you.
  2. Codes of Conduct/Values. In this day when civility is often lacking, some elected officials have created Codes of Conduct/Values for their work as a governing body.   Much like the values we create for our organizations, these values set the rules and expectations for “how” the elected body governs and defines a civil and respectful governing culture for its operations.
  3. Meeting Preparation and Management. While the elected officials are front and center at public meetings, staff plays a critical role in ensuring effective meeting management.

Key components of staff contribution to effective meetings include: well thought out and complete agendas, reports and presentations, anticipation of questions and issues that will arise, helpful responses and recommendations and timely follow through on the decisions of your elected officials.

It is also important to understand that you do not control the process or the outcome of these meetings.  After all, democracy can be messy.  Avoid compromising the success of future meetings by overreacting to a tough one. Work hard at controlling what you can in terms of preparing your elected and yourself for the meeting; you will contribute a great deal to the process, and your elected officials will appreciate it!

  1. Council Retreats. Successful local governance starts with unified direction and understanding of desired outcomes.  Retreats are a way to explore, discuss and agree on desired outcomes and goals for the future. When long term strategies are developed and planned implementation steps designed, it is easier to stay on course and–with the exception of emergencies–allow you to focus on achieving those strategies and  keep everyone heading in the same direction.
  2. Managing Through the Ups and Downs. Face it, things are going to go wrong.  Managing through the positives are easy; managing through the tough times are what good managers prepare for and effectively work our way through.  Whether it is an openly unhappy or rogue elected official, an undermining staff member, a big organizational mistake,  a form of government challenge, or being placed into transition, every manager must be prepared for the challenges that inevitably come in any local government career. The key is understanding that these things happen and addressing them head on and not avoiding the conflict.
  3. Your evaluation. While none of us look forward to the process, it is a good time to reconnect with your elected officials, understand what they are thinking, and plan.  Approach the process with a positive attitude and recognize the positives that can come from the communications and getting aligned on the same page.
  4. Your ICMA Code of Ethics. The “Code” can be a useful tool when it comes to building effective relationships with elected officials.  On those occasions when you are pulled into an uncomfortable “political” discussion or are asked to work outside your normal professional processes, the Code is not only  a good reminder of professional behaviors to you, but can also be effective in helping elected officials understand the role of the professional manager in the governance of your community.

The relationships we have with our elected officials are some of the most important that we will build during our career as local government managers.  Honor this relationship and commit the necessary time to build it with individual elected officials and the elected body as a whole.