|ELECTED OFFICIAL'S LITTLE HANDBOOK
A Portable Guide for Local Government Legislators
By Len Wood
Congratulations, you've been elected to a local government office in your community - city council, board of supervisors, school board or special district. Your euphoria lasts about as long as your first meeting. During the election campaign you distinguished yourself from others by upstaging opponents, making promises about increasing services and lowering taxes, and even attacking the existing governing body and its policies. Confrontation and rhetoric worked well.
As soon as you take your new seat, you are thrust into a world that requires a different set of skills and understandings. Within days, you discover that virtually every tactic that brought you success during the election campaign backfires in your quest to become an effective governing board member. While you are given some slack, you are soon ostracized if you continue to rely upon campaign rhetoric. The confrontational mode is counterproductive and turns colleagues off.
The Elected Officials Little Handbook is a compact, 71/4 by 41/2, loose leaf reference guide that is presented in outline form, making it easy to read and easily fits in a purse or brief case. This is the third book in the Little Handbook series.
The best book I have read that is targeted for elected officials. Every city council member, city manager and city clerk will benefit immensely from this substantive, easy to read handbook.
What a wonderful handbook. It's packed with helpful hints and fresh insights. If every elected official would read it, the public would be served better and policy making would be immeasurably more effective, more efficient - and more fun.
What a great book. I wish they would have provided this to me when I was first elected. It has lots of valuable information in it that you do not get in the orientation sessions.
FROM: Public Management Magazine, October 1994
In the Elected Officials Little Handbook, Len Wood tries to ease the transition from private citizen to productive elected official by presenting in outline form a handy guide to such mundane topics as agendas, staff interaction with the elected body, open meeting laws, dealing with reporters, and elected officials responsibilities. The guide is divided into sections called Roles, Duties, Meetings, Teamwork, and Political Savvy. The text is short and peppered with quotations. It provides advice, explanations, and checklists and could quickly become the security blanket for the new official, who must shed campaign rhetoric and work within a whole new set of procedures to get things done.
The portable guide answers such basic questions--the kind that people sometimes feel silly asking--as how do I control a meeting when the crowd has turned ugly, how do I get something on the agenda, and how do I unearth a colleague's hidden agenda? It helps the new elected official define his or her role with colleagues and appointed bodies and offers helpful questions that can be asked during budget sessions and other meetings that are typical of all agencies.
This invaluable reference tool for the elected official also helps the public manager assist new bosses in becoming comfortable and effective in their new environment, one that often is loaded with pitfalls for the uninitiated. As one of the more insightful quotations from President Lyndon Johnson states, "When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor."
From: The Mayor, Sep/Oct 2001
Managers become great observers of elected officials, says Wood, who has attended over 1,300 council meetings, We watch them as individuals and as members of a group. And Ive seen some that can coalesce and come together and Ive seen some who hate each other and never gel as a team.
Unlike a private companys board of directors, a city council must balance team participation with maintaining individuality because each has been elected. And of course, theres no single unifying goal like profit, which guides a private boards endeavors.
In addition, because of the competitive nature of the electorial process, council members are likely to assume office in a critical mode. As Wood observes, You dont get points with the public for saying how good the city government is. You come in criticizing things and then all of a sudden, youve got to work together with the people you were criticizing, On top of that, the electorate usually selects representatives with diverse backgrounds and experience, which then results in people with varying agendas and values on the council. The potential for conflict is built in before the group even meets.
Conflict assessment. Along with diversity in values and background, Wood also identifies several other issues in the Handbook that can prevent a council from working together as a team. For instance:
Member tenure. New members may wish to reopen issues that long-term members have wrestled with and resolved. According to Wood, every time you have a new election, you actually have a new team, and sometimes I think existing council members can forget that.
Available time. Some members have full-time employment while others who may be retirees or not working treat the elected position as a full-time task.This latter group can irritate colleagues by spending excessive time around the government offices.
Hidden agendas. Some members bring hidden agendas that interfere with the development of cooperation and trust. These concealed agendas create conflict when they stymie the elected bodys efforts at collaboration.
Support groups. Sometimes there are other people influencing the discussion at the table even if they arent there. These outsiders place demands on individual elected officials that may be in conflict with the elected bodys goal.
Selection of the mayor or chairman. This process emerges as a conflict when no policy exists or when there is a policy of succession and the majority decides not to follow it. Having a policy and following it can avoid this particular issue.
Endorsements for nonpartisan elected positions. Endorsing incumbents or someone running against an incumbent can lead to destructive splits on the elected body. Elected officials have long memories so try to avoid endorsements.
Wood says that those who tackle the teamwork issue usually do it in the context of goal setting and strategic planning because its a byproduct of working together towards mutual goals. Just saying were a team doesnt do it. They find out they have got to learn to influence each other. (See 20 Ways to Offend Colleagues).
However, Wood also points out that conflict can lead to better solutions although some people find it hard to tolerate. By airing our positions, we can have a better result, he says. What I teach councils is to try and reach consensus but if you cant, thats ok and then its time to move forward.