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Why don’t we just replace our councillors with a board of directors?

Why don’t we just replace our councillors with a board of directors?, Simon Waller Live
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Last week I posted on LinkedIn asking whether local councillors should be replaced with a board of directors. Just to be clear, this isn’t my idea, but it’s something I often hear when running workshops within local government. The post made quite an impact and led to some in-depth discussions (by social media standards) in the chat thread. Given the level of interest in the topic, I thought I’d republish the post here but add some additional information and embellishments (in italics).

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“Why don’t we just replace our councillors with a board of directors?”

Every time I run either a scenario planning or strategy workshop with local government this is one of the suggestions I hear (obviously, the councillors aren’t in the room at the time, or that would be entirely awkward).

The general premise of this idea is that councillors require little to no formal qualifications and are tasked with making multi-million, multi-generational decisions. Not only that, they often hold very different perspectives and appear to waste considerable time engaging in unnecessarily hostile debate and personal attacks.

I believe there is an unspoken assumption that political discourse is a ‘debate of ideas’ when it may be more appropriate to see it as a ‘discussion to find clarity’. By framing it as a debate, there must be a winner and a loser, which can prevent participants from finding common ground and instead emphasise differences rather than shared understanding.

Expertise vs Local Knowledge

Although in many local councils the interpersonal dynamics and approach to decision making leaves a lot to be desired, I don’t believe this means a board of directors would necessarily do a better job. Councillors have expertise in their local area and understand the desires of the local people.

Another interesting consideration in the board vs councillor debate is, who would be qualified to appoint board members? As a general rule, board appointments require shareholder approval. In the case of local government, community members are the effective shareholders (due to their financial and personal investment in the area where they live) and would still be required to vote. In such a situation it feels like the difference between councillors and board members would be a purely semantic one. Alternatively, the relevant state government might claim to have voting rights, but I’m not sure this would result in a significantly better outcome.

Motivation and Accountability

Councillors also have significant skin in the game. They are not motivated solely by a paycheck, share options or performance bonuses (in fact the remuneration of most councillors is disappointingly meagre and it would be near impossible to find a suitably qualified board directors willing to undertake the same work for the same pay). Instead, they are motivated by wanting a better place for their family, friends and themselves to live in. And if things don’t turn out well, they will quite literally have to live with the consequences of their decisions.

I’m also not sure how many board members would be comfortable operating under the level of scrutiny that councillors do. The fact that almost every discussion, debate and decision that councillors make is done in front of an audience, invariably has an impact on performance. Although I understand the premise that the community should be welcome to attend council meetings, I’m not sure it leads to better decisions (though it may lead to less terrible ones… but more on that next time) and I don’t know any board that would voluntarily invite shareholders in to witness their monthly meetings.

Enthusiasm vs Expertise

Even within business, it’s a well known adage: hire for enthusiasm, not expertise. Expertise can be taught; enthusiasm is innate. There is little doubt that going through the process of council elections requires a significant level of enthusiasm. So what expertise should be taught?

In the LinkedIn thread, there was a significant level of conversation about the qualifications required for councillors. Although there was general consensus that more education was better, there was a real risk identified that by increasing the education requirements you limited the number and diversity of people who would run. Another idea was to require councillors to undertake additional study (e.g., through the Australian Institute of Company Directors) post-election. However, given the low pay and already high time commitment, is it realistic to expect councillors to take on additional education?

Improving Governance and Decision-Making

The two most important roles of councillors is governance and strategic decision making and I believe that the current issues amongst councillor groups is a sign that councillors have been systematically under supported and under trained in both.

With council elections in Victoria and NSW just around the corner, there is a once in four year opportunity to reset the councillor dynamic and it shouldn’t be wasted. I know some councils who have already locked in training as part of their new councillors inductions to support improved interpersonal dynamics and better collective decision making.

There is already an amount of time set aside post elections for councillor inductions. This would appear to be the logical time to include training and support on how diverse groups of people can make better big decisions together. This avoids loading another education requirement on to time poor councillors, it also helps set the tone for how councillors (and the executives) interact for the next four year term.

I believe this will not only improve the efficacy of council, it will also improve relationships between councillors and the executives… and given the challenges that many local government executives are currently facing in this space it feels like a well timed investment for the next council term.

And if your interested in how diverse groups can make better big decisions under pressure you should check out my Science of Decision Making workshops here or just get in touch .

Why don’t we just replace our councillors with a board of directors?, Simon Waller Live

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