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Demystifying council-staff relations in local government

Elmond Bandauko

By Elmond Bandauko

Discussions of local government are usually about the activities of the mayor and councillors. After all, elected officials make the important policy decisions. However, this focus overlooks those who deliver municipal services. A small group of elected officials is supported by a much larger group of professional public servants who advise the mayor and council and engage in a range of tasks of building and maintaining roads, ensuring a safe and reliable water supply, planning liveable communities and collecting taxes to ensure that services are funded properly.

The success of a municipality is determined partly by the quality of the mayor and councillors, and partly by the quality of the public servants who serve those elected people. The relationship between the council and staff also affects the success of the municipality. This brief explains the often overlooked, but important relationship between elected councillors and professional staff. It describes the ways to keep the relationship between council and staff in good order.

An Overview of the Council-Staff Relationship

Local governments in Zimbabwe have a head of council, the mayor in the case of urban local authorities and a council chairperson in rural local authorities. The mayor has a formal role in chairing council meetings and a less formal role as the face of a local authority when meeting visiting dignitaries, officiating at community events, and responding to questions from the media.

The mayor and councillors elected by popular vote are expected to have a commitment to good government or efficient service delivery, but no one expects them to know the details of road construction or land-use planning for example. The legitimacy of councillors flows from the fact that they must face the electorate to explain and defend their past actions. The verdict on whether they do a good job will be delivered every five years by the civic electorate.

This concern about re-election can be regarded as promoting mere political expediency or as a way to ensure accountability. It means that councillors must keep in touch with attitudes in the local community. Are residents excited enough about the new property tax increase? How strongly are people opposed to the new development at Nelson Mandela avenue? Is it a small vocal group, or a true groundswell of opposition? The way in which councillors are attuned to the concerns of local residents is the major contribution they make to policy-making and service delivery.

While the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), Town Clerks, Town Secretaries and management staff should be aware of local concerns, their relative security of tenure gives them a different perspective. Senior staff members derive their legitimacy from specialised professional expertise. They have attained their current position by moving up through a merit-based bureaucracy, or through career experience in similar organisations. They receive professional training at the beginning of their careers, as well as on-the-job socialisation that immerses them further in their professional ethos. This type of career gives them a high level of expertise and a great deal of experience in their specific field.


Table 1 summarises the different perspectives of councillors and staff

Mayors and councillorsChief Executives and management staff
Products of the local community
Products of a professional ethos
Concern for re-electionAllegiance to professional principles
Compromise to get groups on sideRational decision-making
Short-term horizonLong-term horizon
Sensitivity to local cultureFocus on rational, professional values


Some people assume that councillors and staff exist in a state of constant opposition to one another. While councillors and staff might see a particular issue from different perspectives, this is not a reason for the two sides to be in conflict. In fact, the healthy dynamic between people who see an issue differently can produce desirable outcomes that reflect the positive aspects of both protagonists.

The best public policy comes about not when one side defeats the other and gets its way, but when a policy resides at the intersection of the two interests. The mayor and councillors have an obligation to ensure that all decisions made by council reflect the prevailing local culture. Ignoring this requirement will cost them their jobs at the next election. Staff members have an obligation to ensure that decisions also take account of rationally determined professional values. The two groups need to find solutions that reflect both the local culture and rational professional values. This will mean that both sides must be willing to accept something less than ideal.


Maintaining Good Council-Staff Relations

In Good Governance at the Local Level: Meaning and Measurement, Zack Taylor, one of my MPA Professors at the University of Western Ontario, examines municipal good governance from the perspectives of quality of process, outputs, and outcomes. He suggests that developing standards of municipal good governance should begin with a focus on those things within the direct purview of municipal governments, namely good quality governance processes. The quality of the governance processes also depends of good relations between council and staff. The following principles are important for maintaining good council-staff relations.

Treat all council members equally

Experienced municipal staff will remind both staff and councillors that staff members need to avoid favouritism or even the appearance of favouritism. Whatever their differences in experience and abilities, all councillors should be treated equally by staff. Most successful senior municipal managers promote a formal relationship between municipal staff and elected representatives, especially during public meetings or business dealings. It is also essential to treat council as a collective decision-making body, not as a collection of individuals. Everyone recognizes that the head of council is expected to be the leader of council and a “first among equals.”

Keep politics and management separate

There is a difference between policy and management. Elected representatives are responsible for giving political direction, for ensuring that management systems work properly, and for making decisions after staff members, the public, and fellow councillors have been heard. Whatever their professions or work experience in private life, elected representatives at the local government level are not elected to be managers or technical experts. They are elected to represent their community.

Likewise, civil servants are not hired to play a political role. Staff members are paid to research policy issues, to give council their best professional judgment, and to accept and implement effectively whatever council decides, even if it is something staff did not recommend – especially if it is something staff did not recommend.

The underlying principle is simple. Policy decisions are Council’s business; management is management’s business. To promote good relationships, staff must respect democracy, and councillors must respect professional management. “What you call me tells me what you think of me,” especially in the eyes of the public. Municipal professionals understandably prefer being called by their title or “staff,” rather than “bureaucrats.” Local elected representatives similarly prefer to be called by their title or “elected representatives,” rather than “politicians.

Remember that elected representatives represent the whole community

The job of elected representatives is to make decisions based on the good of the broader community, including people who have not been heard at council or in the media or on social media, as well as those who will come in the future. In some cases, it will fall to municipal staff to gently remind councillors of this broader, fiduciary obligation to represent the unrepresented, including future residents. For councillors, it makes sense to rely on feedback received during the election, and in municipal customer satisfaction surveys, rather than simply accepting the wisdom of currently “trending” views on social media or from council delegations. Ultimately, councillors must rely on their own judgment and “due diligence,” and then show leadership on issues.

Don’t air dirty laundry in public

There are many reasons why councils should discourage acrimonious debate and personal attacks. For one, it leads to dissatisfaction and a loss of competent staff. It also looks bad for elected representatives themselves. The public does not want to see local government officials air their grievances with one another in a public forum. They expect them to do the job that they were hired or elected to do. Local government operates in a political arena, with all that that implies. As a result, a councillor may quite properly- or even simply for political reasons – accuse staff of being incorrect, lacking in research or creativity, being insensitive to community concerns, or being too slow to deal with an issue. Staff may not like it, but they have broad shoulders and it is the right of the democratically elected representative to say such things if they are warranted. In short, if an elected official is not happy with the conduct of management staff, he or she should take it to the Chief Executive.


Do not waste councillors’ time

Councillors should not allow staff presentations or delegations to consume all the time that they have to debate and decide an issue – and staff should likewise focus on facilitating good decision-making. Many municipal councils meet in the evenings, after all involved have had a full workday. Late evening decisions are often not good decisions. Councillors should continually remind themselves that the community elected them to make decisions. The public process and council debate are important in local government, but there are practical ways in which it can be managed to ensure access and argument without undermining good decision-making. Public process should inform and improve decision-making, not impede it or exhaust it.

Healthy council-staff relations are important for promoting good governance processes at the local level. Both councillors and staff should understand how this relationship works and how to maintain it.

About the author

Elmond Bandauko holds a Master of Public Administration (MPA) with specialisation in Local government from the University of Western Ontario (Canada) where he studied as an African Leaders of Tomorrow Scholar. He did his BSc. (Hons) in Rural and Urban Planning from the University of Zimbabwe. His interests include participatory policy making, public management, program and policy evaluation, collaborative governance and the politics of urban development in cities of the global south.

About the author

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