Working Effectively with Elected Officials

Posted on September 2, 2015

By Jan Perkins and Linda Barton
Jan Perkins and Linda Barton are both former city managers and are now serving as consultants to local government as part of Management Partners. Jan is a founding board member of Women Leading Government board and Linda previously served on the board. Both are ICMA Credentialed Managers. Jan is also an ICMA Liaison.
For government to be effective, elected officials and professional staff have to work well together, even in the face of competing priorities and misunderstandings of roles and boundaries. Professional staff often complain of elected officials who go directly to staff members to help, rather than making the request through the chief executive, or political pressure to bend the rules on a development review, or governing body members who don’t understand how their requests affect other priorities. (Elected officials no doubt have their own list of complaints about professional staff that we can discuss another time.)
Learning what is professional and appropriate, and what is out of bounds, is required of successful managers. Setting and enforcing boundaries becomes easier with time, and learning how is a key step in becoming an effective leader. Some ideas on learning to work in harmony with elected include:

  • Create guidelines to send all requests to the chief executive, rather than to line staff directly. Such guidelines help all elected officials to have access to the same information and ensure that the answer is complete.
  • Create a “one hour” rule to guide how much time will be spent on research before the full governing body needs to weigh in.
  • For elected officials who frequently ask for detailed information on a range of issues, track the time needed to respond to a handful of requests and make sure they understand how much staff time can be spent fulfilling such requests. A simple analysis of the cost of responding to requests (such as, these requests have been averaging 50% of an FTE) may help elected officials understand the impact of their requests. It may be worth it to raise the issue during annual goal-setting sessions, to align staff work with the body’s top priorities.
  • Know and use the code of ethics from your own organization and that of our professional associations. If you find yourself uncomfortable with requests from elected officials or others, refer questions to supervisors rather than feeling stuck or pressured.
  • Develop and nurture trusted advisors inside and outside your organization whom you can turn to for advice when you’re facing a difficult situation. Sometimes another perspective helps confirm your instinct or gives you new insight that you may not have otherwise considered.
  • Participate in industry events, calls and networking opportunities to learn from others, compare notes and gain wisdom.

Working with elected officials in a respectful and professional manner is essential for successful local government management. The lessons can be tricky to learn, but once mastered they will be useful at every step in a public-service career.


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