Part 10: How the Chief Executive Interacts with Elected Members on a Daily Basis

Managing the Relationship Between a Local Authority's Elected Members and its Chief Executive.

A Working Relationship Based on Respect and Trust

A council cannot be expected to employ a chief executive whom it neither respects nor trusts. And a chief executive can manage effectively only when she or he has the managerial freedom to give effect to council decisions and implement council policies.

Maintaining a constructive relationship between elected members and the chief executive requires each to have a clear understanding of the other’s role – in particular, the difference between governance and management (see paragraphs 4.15-4.19 on page 29) – and effective communication between them.

Nevertheless, elected members and the chief executive have to work together every day. In these conditions, each needs to be aware of the distinction between governance and management without being inflexible about where they see the boundary between the respective roles. Elected members and the chief executive should maintain regular communication to address any emerging tensions in the relationship.

The chief executive is frequently having to make judgements about which matters should and should not be raised with the council, and how elected members should be informed. In making these judgements the chief executive needs guidance from the mayor/chairperson or chairpersons of standing committees.

A lack of advice and support from the council can result in the chief executive being insufficiently aware of the council’s information needs.

Where the council (as the chief executive’s employer) is struggling to work as a coherent entity, suspicion and distrust can arise when:

  • the chief executive and mayor/chairperson are seen as being too close to the chief executive;
  • the chief executive and staff fail to discuss meeting agendas or emerging issues with the mayor/chairperson and chairpersons of committees; or
  • the chief executive is seen as being more accessible and responsive to some elected members than others.

What We Asked About Working Relationships

We asked chief executives how they decided whether to brief the council about a particular matter.

We asked elected members whether:

  • accountability documents (such as the performance agreement or employment agreement) defined the circumstances in which the chief executive should brief elected members; and
  • they felt that the advice they received was timely and considered.

The Views of Elected Members and Chief Executives

Knowing What to Brief the Council About

In considering whether to brief the council about a particular matter, chief executives most commonly draw on:

  • discussion with staff;
  • advice from the mayor/chairperson; and
  • their own judgement.

Other sources of guidance include:

  • fellow chief executives;
  • informal discussions with elected members;
  • the media; and
  • LGNZ, SOLGM, trade journals, briefings from government departments, public and private sector reports, various stakeholder contacts, and Members of Parliament.

Elected Member Satisfaction with Advice from the Chief Executive

About 80% of elected members told us that the chief executive and staff gave them full and well-considered advice, and said that issues requiring council consideration were raised in a timely manner. More than one in five elected members were of the view that performance documentation failed to define clearly the circumstances in which the chief executive should brief the council.

Of the one in five elected members, nearly three-quarters thought that the performance expectations of the chief executive failed to specify clearly those issues on which they wished to be briefed, and they also felt that they did not receive advice that was fully considered and timely.

The following comments reflect some of the concerns that elected members had about the timeliness of advice to the council and the quality of that advice:

  • Too often management have to be requested to brief council on a particular issue, there is no strong culture of being proactive in providing briefings to council on sensitive or complicated issues.
  • We have had some concerns over timely advice lacking when it was required prior to council's public comments.
  • More scope for options to be presented.
  • Appears sometimes as though issues haven't been fully discussed by management and a fragmented view is given to council.
  • Competence of staff varies from department to department which reflects on the advice given and the results achieved.
  • I think the advice could occasionally come earlier, information needs can sometimes be anticipated.
  • Information often seems to reflect preconceived ideas, assistance sometimes seems reluctant.
  • Sometimes I feel there is not enough warning so I can do my homework.

These comments illustrate the importance of giving elected members sufficient time to consider and read briefing material.

Our Views

Reporting to the Council

Elected members should receive both financial and non-financial information about the implementation and impact of council policies (see paragraph 9.26 on page 74). The elected members should provide feedback to the chief executive on the content and presentation of such reports. Additionally or alternatively, the chief executive could consider asking elected members at regular intervals for their views on the quality of the reports.

General performance measures of report quality can be included among the performance expectations set for the chief executive and other managers. The council could set specific performance measures for reports on particular policies.

The chief executive should provide (at least quarterly) concise and comprehensive progress reports on implementation of the local authority’s Annual Plan. These reports should identify significant variances in achievement from the targets and objectives in the Plan, together with commentary on:

  • reasons for the variances;
  • remedial actions taken; and
  • the likely results at the end of the Plan period.

The Role of the Mayor/Chairperson in Reporting to the Council

Under the Local Government Act the mayor/chairperson has the same status as any other elected member, except that they have the duty to preside at council meetings. Although the Act gives mayors/chairpersons no specific powers in that capacity, mayors (at least) are elected with the expectation that they take a broad leadership role both in public and within their local authorities.

The mayor/chairperson (presiding member of the governing body and ‘politician’) and the chief executive (senior executive manager and administrator) commonly represent the political and managerial arms of the local authority in public forums, and need to have a close working relationship. Often, the chairpersons of standing committees also need to have a close working relationship with the chief executive.

Therefore, the mayor/chairperson and (when appropriate) chairpersons of standing committees have a responsibility to facilitate the council’s relationship with the chief executive. In particular, these office-holders should have regard to the statutory obligations of the chief executive and promote respect for the chief executive’s role as the council’s chief adviser and administrative leader.

The mayor/chairperson and chairpersons of standing committees can help to do this by:

  • Chairing meetings effectively so that debates are orderly and constructive – allowing a range of views to be aired as well as staff advice to be given due consideration. Elected members should be able to question and debate options so that the council is able to reach an agreed position on the basis of broad support.
  • Providing the chief executive with day-to-day support and feedback, to help the chief executive better meet the council’s reporting and information needs.
  • Showing leadership and encouraging effective teamwork within the council – by supporting all elected members and giving them access to information to help them better fulfil their role and understand the business of the local authority.

On employment matters, the chief executive is accountable, not to the mayor/chairperson or any other individual elected member, but to the local authority as a whole (see paragraph 8.1 on page 63).

Timeliness of Advice

Elected members should have adequate time to consider advice and form their views. Elected members are also under an obligation to consider carefully and make themselves familiar with information provided by the chief executive or other staff. The views of elected members could usefully be sought on how much time they need in which to consider:

  • council agendas and papers;
  • reports on the Annual Plan and Long-term Financial Strategy; and
  • policy development and review processes.

The chief executive and staff should respond to requests from elected members in a timely and helpful manner. For various reasons, it may not be possible to answer every request for information – for example, the information may:

  • not be immediately available;
  • be too costly to gather; or
  • materially affect the delivery of work programmes, particularly where many requests are made or where a large volume of information is sought.

The chief executive and the council should agree on:

  • when and for what reasons the chief executive may refuse a request for information;
  • priorities for responding to requests; and
  • the conditions under which information is to be provided.

The chief executive should treat all requests for information in a fair and equitable manner:

  • ensuring that all elected members have access to information necessary to their role; and
  • avoiding any perception of favouring one member over another.

The chief executive should endeavour to anticipate issues affecting the operations of the local authority that the council might need to consider. This system of ‘early warning’ enables the council to give timely consideration of emerging issues as they arise.

Information Protocol

Communities expect their local authorities to be well managed and run in a cost-effective manner. If elected members are to provide the necessary assurance to their communities about the performance of the local authority, they must be kept appropriately informed by the chief executive.

Elected members need access to information on a wide range of subjects, and often need to discuss ratepayer issues with members of staff. The chief executive needs to ensure that elected members have appropriate access to such information, and that they are readily able to raise any concerns they may have about the administration of the local authority.

However, elected members seeking information should have regard to the need for local authority staff to have clear lines of responsibility, and should ensure that all demands they make on staff time take account of the staff member's work programme and priorities. The chief executive and elected members should develop a protocol which outlines:

  • how elected members should raise issues or seek information about matters of local authority administration;
  • the manner in which such requests should be made; and
  • the channel to be followed.

This protocol should:

  • be understood and accepted by both elected members and staff;
  • enable elected members to have ready access to timely and accurate information that meets their needs;
  • be explicit about the channels through which elected members must convey their requests (such as only through the chief executive or other identified senior manager);
  • enable staff to be clear about their work priorities and reporting responsibilities; and
  • provide for effective co-ordination for dealing with issues and problems raised by elected members.
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