City Council Retreats – Know Your ‘Why’

Posted on March 13, 2019


Today’s #MorningBuzz brought to you by Neha Subramanyam:

As an organization, how often do you reflect on your core values, mission, and guiding principles? Do you consider how they influence your decision making process on a daily basis?

Retreats are a powerful management tool for local government leaders to refocus on the mission of a city and develop priorities which are in line with a City’s core values.

Moreover, retreats can be energizing. They are opportunities for elected officials and city staff to step back from the day-to-day routine and organize around the foundational elements of our service – who we serve, what values we uphold, and what direction we are headed.

City Councilors and staff from the City of Hillsboro, OR recently convened for an annual one-day retreat where the City Council identified several short and long term priorities for staff to focus on.

Here are three key takeaways which helped make Hillsboro’s retreat day successful:

Preparation Mode: T-30 Days

It’s important to communicate with the Council what retreat day will involve – the agenda, staff attendance, facilitators, and the goal for the day. Even the simple exercise of reviewing the agenda together allows Councilors to know exactly what they can expect at the retreat, and prepare accordingly.

About a month before the retreat is also an ideal time to check in with each Councilor about the issues and challenges that are at top of mind. Identifying hot button issues well in advance of the retreat will tremendously help staff prepare for and support conversations during goal setting sessions.

It allows staff to have a deeper understanding of what each Councilor is passionate about and interested in accomplishing while in office. Focused check-ins prior to the retreat are also a great opportunity for staff to address any concerns or hesitations which a Councilor may have related to the retreat.

Laying this type of groundwork and giving Councilors space to have input into the retreat planning process ultimately helps everyone show up to the retreat feeling open-minded and focused on the task at hand.

Assign Homework!

Weeks prior to retreat day, each Councilor received a retreat packet which included a detailed agenda, a summary of the City’s guiding statements (core values, mission, community-led vision), reading materials, you guessed it: homework!

Among other homework assignments, we asked Councilors to come to the retreat prepared to share their “why” with staff and fellow Councilors. What are your personal philosophies? Why did you run for City Council? Why do you do what you do?

Sharing a deeply personal reflection was intended to not only be a team and trust building exercise, but also root conversations about City priorities in shared values and vision.

This also framed the level of discourse we hoped the Council would engage in, which ultimately led to priorities based on broader values-based objectives rather than project-specific outcomes.

Facilitation & Conflict Management

Choosing a facilitator is one of the most critical decisions in planning a retreat. An effective facilitator is attentive to group dynamics, creates an inclusive environment, manages conflict well, and leads a group to successful conclusions by establishing a consensus.

No matter how well members of a Council get along, discussions on how to allocate a City’s finite resources among several important and competing interests can lead to conflict and even become contentious.

It’s the facilitator’s responsibility is to be adaptable to unexpected turns that a conversation may take. A skilled facilitator can maneuver the conversation away from unproductive disagreement and guide the group towards a consensus in a manner which ultimately strengthens the bonds amount the Councilors.

Successful retreats not only achieve the primary objective of identifying strategic priorities, they also create a renewed drive to achieve a City’s mission and plan for the future.

As local government leaders who continuously strive to improve the delivery of our City’s public services, retreats are the ideal environment to step out of the details of our daily routine and view our work through a wider lens.  

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