Thursday, 23 May 2013

How to build political awareness in your team - a recipe for good member-officer relationships

I've run lots of 'political awareness' workshops with local government officers and other groups who deal with councillors on a regular basis. These workshops have helped delegates to understand the vital role that elected Members play - in decision-making, representing others and leading communities.  On the flip-side, and just as importantly, councillors who have attended the workshops have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenges that officers face.

So much of it is about understanding each other, reflecting on experience, and building empathy. I've taken these key elements and turned them into a recipe for good member-officer relationships.  Fancy trying it in your organisation?

A recipe for good Member-Officer relationships 

A selection of local councillors
One large organisation (preferably a Council, but any other big complicated organisation will do)
You and your team
Respect (large dollop)
Learning (sprinkle liberally throughout)

Potential for thousands of portions - to be enjoyed by organisations, teams, individuals and communities

Step one.  Reflection

Firstly, wash and peel your large organisation so that you can work out exactly what it is, how it operates and why.  Spend some time reflecting on the organisation with your team.  Who is leading it? (really?) Who stops things getting done? Where do you fit in?  Explore what makes the ingredients different, and what makes them the same.

Step two. Building empathy

This bit takes some time.  Mix in the councillors and slowly introduce the ingredients to each other so that they all understand their different roles, responsibilities and strengths.  Provide as much exposure as possible - never hide the ingredients from each other! Stir in the following quote:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view... Until you climb inside of their skin and walk around in it."*

Step three.  Develop a respectful culture

Add a big dollop of respect and leave in a warm place, so that a positive culture develops.  If any ingredients do not 'take' to the new culture, ensure that you work hard with them so that they understand what kind of language and treatment of others is acceptable.  All of your ingredients should know how to behave, so make sure the organisation's values and expectations are made clear to them when they are first added to the mixture.

Step four.  Increasing contact

Many problems with member-officer relationships in Councils are due to a lack of contact and proximity.  So blend the officers and the councillors together, but make sure you use non-confrontational activities to do this (great methods for blending include joint learning programmes, social events, invitations to team meetings, shared celebrations, shadowing and buddying).

Step three.

You should now have a nice mixture of ingredients  - so bake in the oven (always adhering to the Council's health and safety advice!) Once cooked, share it and ensure that you celebrate the results.

Important note:

Expect this recipe to go wrong occasionally. Don't blame the ingredients.  Instead, reflect on the experience and start from the beginning again.

*from Harper Lee "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Top 10 induction sessions for new councillors

"There are two great things about being a councillor. All the people you meet, and all the things you learn."

A councillor once said this to me, and we went on to discuss at some length just how much there is to learn, especially in the early days. Most local authorities will do their best to support the induction process for their new Members but its a difficult balance - how to provide all the information needed without completely overwhelming people?

I saw over 70 new councillors join Leeds City Council during my time as Member Development Officer, and did my best to support them through the early days. Here's a list (in no particular order) of what I feel are the top 10 essential components of any councillor induction programme:

1. Basic Induction.

An introductory 'finding your feet' session should include things like a tour of the City Hall, information about where mail goes, how to get hold of officers, how your allowance is paid, what support is available to you, etc.

But perhaps even more important are really basic things like where the toilets are and where to get a sandwich. So simple but vital, and often overlooked in the haste to get on to more 'important' things like...

2. Understanding Council Decision-Making

It's useful to nail this stuff in the early days, to avoid asking embarrassing questions or making errors later on. A good session will include background information and legislation too, rather than just telling you 'this is how it is' without explaining why.

3. Using ICT

Any new councillors reading this are likely to have a good grasp of technology, but there are many who don't. Training (one-to-one ideally) should be offered with every piece of equipment provided, and sessions which help councillors to understand the benefits (and pitfalls) of social media are really useful too. It is also important to understand council policies relating to internet and email usage - and of course data protection and keeping information safe.

4. Managing Casework

A large part of handling casework is managing the expectations of constituents. Sadly, new councillors will soon learn how slowly the wheels of local government can turn, and that what seemed to be a simple solution to a casework problem is actually painfully complex. It's worth taking a step back and thinking about how you can manage your casework effectively without over-burdening yourself - and put some tools in place to help you start as you mean to go on. There are lots of great ways that technology can help these days - those with iPads can use apps such as Evernote - and a session like this can help you to share ideas and pick up tips from others.

5. Understanding the Members' Code of Conduct and Declaring Interests

Basic stuff but so important to understand and apply it.

6. Being a corporate parent

This is vital for any councillors elected to a council with looked-after-children. Sessions that actually involve young people can be very powerful in helping councillors understand what it is really like to be in care.

7. Safeguarding Children and Adults

Another important one. As a minimum, get hold of the council's safeguarding policies and familiarise yourself with the procedures. You never know when you might be confronted with this kind of situation and possibly have to make a referral, so it's best to be clear from the start.

8. Understanding Local Government Finance

More important information to get your head round. You might already understand how the council is funded, the difference between capital and revenue expenditure and how the council is dealing with the cuts, but if not, a session with the Chief Finance Officer should help clarify things.

9. Managing your time

It's worth planning how you will split your time (particularly if you work), before your councillor duties take over, as they will magically expand to fit any time available! There are some useful techniques to help you prioritise and work out what is urgent and what is important. Ways of managing that ever-growing email inbox are particularly useful.

10. Planning your personal development

In one of the sessions I run for new councillors, we spend a bit of time drawing the 'ideal' councillor. This is mainly a bit of fun to balance out the drier sessions (see numbers 2 and 8) but it raises some interesting questions. When you became a councillor, what kind of councillor did you want to be? What gaps are there and what skills do you need to improve on? What skills do you already possess, and how can you make the best use of them? What's your vision and goal and how will you get there?

If you can, find someone (outside of your party group) to talk these things through with, or even consider using a coach or mentor.

So, that was my top 10 - there's lots in there, and I can still think of lots more. Of course, no induction programme will be perfect and include everything - what is most important is that it is as tailored, as far as possible, for each individual.  But what do you think? Please share your ideas and experiences with me.