Understanding Governance

  • Aug. 12, 2013 4:00 p.m.

Pipestone Flyer

In the Municipal Elections in October of 2013, members of county, city, town, village, and summer village councils, and of school boards, will be elected for four year terms, a year longer than has been the practice in Alberta.  The longer term has both positive and negative implications.  It increases the importance of electing capable people and gives new members more time to work effectively once they understand what is really involved after their first year or two of intense learning.  No matter how much experience a person has, a new council or board requires considerable learning of the specific factors involved in its effective operation and provision of services, but an understanding of the general principles of governance and the cycle in the chain of command will help the specifics fall into place more easily.

    We tend to hear of the American Robert's Rules of Order, but Canadian elected bodies tend to use the Westminster Rules of Order, similar and at least equally effective.

    Governance begins with the board, council or higher elected body which has responsibility to provide leadership, make decisions, guard resources, determine policy, and communicate and work with the public.  Each member has exactly one vote, and decisions are made by a majority vote.  Therefore, an effective member needs three qualities. There is the need to be able to understand the big picture and the balancing act of how a particular action will affect the finances, the quality of  service delivery,  and the quality of life for the residents or ratepayers affected.  There is the need to be able to generate good, practical, effective ideas and solutions, to be able to recognize the good ideas of others, and to be able to help put together the best aspects of many ideas to produce the best available solution.  There is the need to be able to work with others and persuade them to your point of view if you are certain that your understanding and course of action is truly the wisest and best.  Councils and boards are most effective when they work together as a team, recognizing that each member brings a unique combination of knowledge, experience and perspective, respecting each other, and relying on each person's expertize.  Once a decision has been made, it is a standard practice of governance for everyone to put aside their own opinions and support the majority decision.

    The next step of governance requires that the board or council decision be communicated as clear direction to the administrator who has to have the power to implement that clear directive.  Clear communication is necessary as the directions are passed on to department heads and to the staff who do the actual work.  Clear reports on the outcomes pass back up to the department heads to the administrator to the council or board.  Members of councils and boards must respect the chain of command, never try to act as bosses of the employees.  However, remember that the public is most directly affected by the actual work done, by the quality of the workers.  In fact, the ultimate reason for the existence of any and every council and board is to provide services to the public individually and in accord with the best interests of the whole.

    Another aspect of governance involves the balancing acts of understanding how the responsibilities and actions of the particular council or board fit with other levels of government, councils and boards, both within and beyond the local jurisdiction.  The legislation of the higher provincial and federal levels of government override the municipal level, so there is a need to understand the legislation and how it is interpreted and applied.  Every council and board also interacts with its neighbour councils and boards, both those sharing the same geographical area, those nearby, and those in a wider area with the same level of responsibilities.  Within each jurisdiction, there are organizations and groups which represent various needs and interests of the people and desire regular contact.  Each interaction requires that a representative of the council or board attend meetings and report back. 

    Good governance is a difficult, time consuming task requiring the best efforts of our best people.  It can be very rewarding.  The longer four year terms starting this fall give councils and boards which are working well to have a better opportunity to carry good initiatives and programs to completion.  Unfortunately, the longer terms will increase the negative effects of dysfunctional councils and boards.  The longer term makes it more important than ever to elect quality representatives, to avoid the negative and single-issue candidates that impede over-all effectiveness.  It is important to vote wisely for quality candidates. 

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