Part 9: Sharing Responsibility for Policy Development

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

The Roles of Elected Members and Staff

As we have explained in Part 4, the role of the elected member includes (in our view) to “set the strategic direction for the local authority and determine policies consistent with that strategic direction” (paragraph 4.10 on page 27). For that reason, the elected members should feel that they have ownership of, and should accordingly take responsibility for, the policies determined by the council.

Nevertheless, the chief executive has a statutory responsibility to provide advice to elected members (paragraph 4.4 on pages 25-26). In our view, this means that:

  • the council should obtain and consider the chief executive’s advice on matters of policy; and
  • the chief executive should feel able to offer advice to the council on matters of policy, or suggest new or revised policies, without the need for an invitation to do so.

Staff may, on occasions, present reports to the council or provide advice that can be seen as:

  • promoting staff views without regard to an existing council policy;
  • providing unbalanced views or supporting particular partisan views; or
  • attempting to pre-empt the elected members’ role to determine policy.

Such reports or advice can frustrate elected members and lead to their dissatisfaction with, and loss of confidence in, staff. That situation could become an obstacle to the effective creation and implementation of council policy. Frustrated elected members could also distance themselves publicly from council decisions or become unduly critical of staff.

We reiterate what we say in paragraph 4.9 (on page 27) – it is essential that the council and the chief executive (and other staff) function as a team in an environment of mutual respect and trust.

What We Asked About Policy Development

We asked elected members to tell us:

  • how they were consulted during the policy development process;
  • whether they accepted shared responsibility for council policy which might be controversial;
  • whether they felt they had sufficient opportunity to contribute to policy development to allow them to fulfil their policy role; and
  • of any concerns they had about the policy development process.

We also asked how controversial decisions were managed, and whether elected members were committed to the council’s strategic direction and policies.

We asked chief executives whether elected members took an active role in considering the strategic direction of the council and in developing policy. We enquired as to when elected members became involved in developing new policies and reviewing strategy.

The Views of Elected Members and Chief Executives

Satisfaction with Policy Processes

About 90% of elected members were satisfied that they had sufficient opportunity to help develop council policy. Nevertheless, the following comments illustrate the range of issues that elected members felt could arise in the course of developing policy:

  • Often feel that staff/CE have already made policy and then lead elected members' debate to fit desired outcome. Long-term documents leave little room for elected members’ input.
  • Disruptive councillors’ opinions are not sought.
  • There are matters where information that would lead to alternative policies [is] not always canvassed.
  • Councillors are not encouraged to initiate policy changes. Changes are workshopped by staff and stakeholders/consultants intensively before presentation to councillors. Creates imbalance in knowledge and understanding.
  • It is difficult to get detail that some councillors may require at times, especially financial.
  • Have concerns when council agrees on a particular course of action and delegates authority to implement said action and something different results.
  • Time constraints mean decisions are sometimes rushed and not fully developed.
  • If a councillor is not on a Committee when a staff member has put forward a policy proposal, it's difficult to have meaningful input.

Various suggestions were made to improve understanding of policies and promote debate:

  • Councillors have ample opportunity to pre-discuss policy development, deliberative or discussion sessions are held regularly just for this purpose.
  • From time to time workshops are held offsite to brainstorm the future direction of council. Group Managers and councillors attend these workshops with the opportunity for early input in the process.
  • All strategies and policies are developed through councillor and senior staff workshops.
  • I would like an appropriate question time regularly at council meetings once per month.

About 80% of chief executives said they thought that elected members took an active role in considering council policies and strategic direction.

However, comments from chief executives suggested that elected members were most likely to avoid participating in this process because they were unwilling to address longer-term matters of policy and strategic direction. For example:

  • Financial and strategic issues most problematic.
  • Councillors fail to understand [the] relevance of policy. Once they are involved in [the] debate then they are okay.
  • Accepting need to change and provide direction, innovation and leadership to the community.
  • Many councillors have difficulties with strategic issues – more comfortable with short-term timeframes (three years).
  • Challenge detail rather than concepts.

Dealing With Controversial Decisions

These are some of the responses to our enquiry as to whether elected members shared responsibility for council policy which might be controversial:

  • Some still coming to terms with need for individual and collective responsibility.
  • After some training.
  • Some try to use community group or media to re-litigate.
  • Always the temptation to distance themselves from [the decision] for political reasons.
  • Anything controversial we usually discuss and present a united front.
  • Councillors are there for their own agendas.
  • Newer councillors do not like to accept the rap for unpopular but necessary decisions.
  • Vested interest continues to disregard public consultation process and denigrate decisions of council.
  • Sometimes people grandstand.
  • Councillors are quick to disassociate themselves.

Chief executives observed that some elected members who disagreed with council decisions were inclined to respond negatively – sometimes with direct consequences for council management and staff:

  • Abstain or vote against the decision then anecdotal evidence suggests they bad-mouth the organisation in public.
  • Convey view to media and to other stakeholders suggesting staff are not supporting council policy, which can build a wave of resentment. This requires a lot of corrective strategies and can make the situation worse at times.
  • They usually blame the staff for exercising hidden agendas.
  • Undermining, leaking reports, legal opinions involved in Court action against corporate body of the council when decisions go against them, there is no 'corporate' ownership or loyalty.

All elected members – whether satisfied or dissatisfied with their input to policy determination – appeared to be involved in formulating policy to the same extent. Elected members said that they needed to be involved in the policy process from an early stage. Chief executives also recognised this point, noting that staff commonly organised workshops for elected members on policy issues that were at an early stage of development.

Elected members reported that the most common response by an elected member dissatisfied with a council policy decision was to make public statements to distance their own position from that of their colleagues. The tenor of other responses included a dissatisfied member:

  • ‘blaming’ a staff member for implementing a council policy, either in public (in a public forum or meeting) or to the media, or in private (such as when contacted by a ratepayer); and
  • submitting a Notice of Motion to a council meeting knowing that it would have insufficient support to overturn the council’s decision.

Our Views

The Statutory Duty to Advise

To meet the statutory responsibility to advise the council under section 119D of the Local Government Act, the chief executive should ensure that reports are:

  • timely – raising issues as they emerge and giving elected members sufficient time to consider options;
  • accurate and impartial – covering the full range of views, and discussing them with reference to supporting data without prejudice or bias;
  • relevant – identifying the impact of issues in relation to the council's strategic intent and work programmes; and
  • focused – presenting for consideration the critical policy options, costs and consequences in a simple and understandable way.

Senior staff must comply with council policy, but may suggest alternatives (or new policies) for consideration, based on their professional judgement. However, in making suggestions staff must ensure that they have:

  • considered all options available to the council;
  • put all options to the council;
  • evaluated the costs and benefits of all the options; and
  • investigated thoroughly and obtained supporting data for all options.

In considering policy options, elected members and the chief executive need to recognise their respective roles and responsibilities. The chief executive:

  • has the role of providing objective policy advice and analysing the costs and benefits of options; and
  • should recognise that elected members have the right to identify policy options and to have views different from those of management.

On occasions, an elected member performs different roles at the same time – for example, as a councillor and as a ward representative or advocate for a special interest group within the local community. In these circumstances the elected member may feel that the chief executive’s advice to the council is not being sufficiently responsive to the interests of the group that the member represents.

However, in accordance with the declaration that every member must sign on taking office, elected members are obliged to put the interests of the local authority ahead of any special interests they may represent within the city, district, or region. Elected members must recognise that the chief executive faces this same obligation in providing advice to the council.

Where the council is made up of members with mixed or opposing views, staff can sometimes find themselves unfairly suspected of being partisan in their views and in the advice that they provide to the council. Local authority staff are expected to perform their duties in an impartial manner. Elected members should, for their part, respect the integrity of staff and avoid involving them in political debates that may take place within the council.

Participation of Elected Members in Policy Development

The views of elected members must be taken into account when policy is first being developed. In particular, elected members should be involved in identifying policy options. Elected members and staff should recognise that they may have different views on how best to achieve the council's aims.

When there is a significant change in the membership of the council, the chief executive and staff should at an early stage find out the policy aspirations of newly elected members. Workshops or planning sessions may be useful forums in which to share and consider a variety of ideas and perspectives on policy matters.

The chief executive and staff are under an obligation to give effect to council policies. This obligation can place staff in an invidious position when elected members continue to question council policies. In such circumstances, dissenting members may view the chief executive as the proponent of a policy with which they fundamentally disagree.

Giving Effect to Council Policies and Monitoring their Impact

For the purposes of monitoring the impact of council policies, elected members need information on the outputs that have been produced and on the outcomes that have been achieved. The information should take the form of a comparison of expected outputs and outcomes with actual outputs and outcomes, based on objective measures.

In consultation with the chief executive, the council should establish a programme for reviewing council policies and priorities so that it can consider:

  • the continuing validity of existing policies and priorities; and
  • whether new needs require modified or new policies and priorities.

Informing the Community

The council has an obligation to seek the views of its constituents and keep them informed of significant policy developments. It should inform ratepayers and special interest groups about the implications of policies, and give such groups the opportunity to make their views known to elected members – and, thus, influence council decisions.

Elected members, the chief executive, and staff all have a role in informing constituents. However, the chief executive and staff should present the policies as those of the council as a whole, and avoid presentation in a manner that makes them appear to be advocates for the policies.

Elected members should similarly avoid representing a policy as associated personally either with them – if the policy was their idea – or with the chief executive/staff – if that was where the policy originated.

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