by David Street, project manager, Loudoun County, Virginia
One of the most important skills that you need to develop to be an effective local government professional at any level is the ability to work with elected officials. This can be a daunting skill to learn. I was lucky in the sense that my first full-time employer in a local government was an elected official. My current role as a standing committee staff liaison requires significant interaction with elected officials to conduct business, not to mention requirements of my day-to-day role in the county administrator’s office. I have had abundant opportunities to work directly with and observe others working with elected officials and I’m happy to report that it is a skill that you can learn and practice. I practice them nearly every day. These are the four things I try to focus on in my work with elected officials:
1. Look for and understand motivations
Elected officials become elected officials for a reason. Many are motivated by a desire to improve and serve their communities. Many are motivated by specific issues, like transportation, development, or schools. Others are propelled by a certain morality or a sense of right and wrong. Understanding the underlying motivation(s) of elected officials is key to understanding how they will react to certain policy proposals, what positions they will take in response to an issue, how they will receive information from you, and perhaps most importantly, how they will vote when their name is called.
You can begin to understand motivations by taking some relatively simple steps: sign up for the elected officials’ newsletter or follow them on social media; ask them (or their staff, if applicable) what their constituents are saying on a given issue; pay close attention to the types of questions they ask; and if appropriate, ask them directly from what viewpoint or angle they approach a given issue. You may be surprised with a candid and critically useful answer.
You cannot only seek to understand other’s motivations and expect to be successful, you must also understand your own motivations. This applies at the micro and macro levels. When I’m tackling a particularly complicated or politically charged issue, I always ask myself the following questions: Why are you making these specific recommendations? Why did you use the process you did to develop those recommendations? Why do you do what you do every day? It’s hard to grasp the motivations of others without some awareness of your own.
2. Understand that they are people
For all the pomp and circumstance that can surround the life of elected officials, at the end of the day they are people. They have day jobs. They are concerned if they are going to be able to make it to the gym that day. The most successful interactions I’ve had with elected officials is when I have (respectfully) leveled with them. People, including staff, can sometimes be reluctant to say what they mean. Often, people do this out of a desire to not offend or rock the boat. I have observed that sometimes a little boat rocking is necessary.
Your elected officials, while knowledgeable, might not be experts on every issue that needs a decision. They are relying on you to give them the facts as well as the context so they can make an informed policy decision. I find it useful to pause and ask myself or a trusted colleague if my own opinions or biases are exerting undue influence. It’s important to note that sharing facts perceived as “negative” by staff or others is just as important, if not more so, than being straightforward when presenting information. In the long run, being transparent with the governing body as a whole, and with the individual members, builds higher levels of trust and goodwill.
Our deputy county administrator is a master at providing and distilling as much information and context as possible to the governing body. I have witnessed this tactic pay off every time with informed decisions by the governing body, increased confidence in staff, and an appreciation for integrity with which information was presented. As you can imagine, the least successful interactions occur when information or context is withheld or when staff is perceived as biased. You could end up with a less than ideal decision, or perhaps worse, a loss in the elected officials’ trust in staff. Each of these outcomes can have significant negative impact on your organization.
3. Understand how they prefer to communicate
People have different communication styles. Perhaps one official is very direct or assertive with her communication while another is more passive. It is important to keep in mind that these communication styles can vary between audiences. You should observe how they prefer to communicate with colleagues, constituents, professional staff, and in public meetings. Developing a feel for each official’s communication style will allow you to adjust your own style to ensure mutual understanding. Watching two people talk past each other is difficult enough on its own and worse still when policy decisions are at stake.
Being successful in this space means you have to take a good look at the communication styles you use, understand their strengths and weaknesses, and actively adjust them for a given situation. For example, I default toward two styles: 1) When I need something specific or I’m confident about something, I tend to be direct and transactional. This is good in that my intentions are clear and you know exactly what I need; however, it doesn’t always endear me to the people on the receiving end – it comes off as harsh and uncaring. 2) When I’m unsure about a situation or decision, I tend to passively build consensus and consult with others. The strength here is that I leverage others’ experience to inform my decision or work but the weakness is that it is a slow process and can make me seem indecisive.
4. Understand what you can control
It may surprise you to learn that, up until the issue is placed on the table for discussion and action, you have control. On a given issue, you control your level of knowledge; you control how prepared you are to discuss and address questions; you control how you react to unexpected circumstances; you control how well you understand motivations; and you control quality of information and context provided. You have to do your homework, and it is helpful to gather as much background information as possible to understand how the organization got to where it is, why certain decisions were made, and what trajectory that places the organization on.
Exerting the type of control I’m talking about requires a lot of preparation and a wide perspective. The inverse is also true, to lift a sentiment from Reinhold Niebuhr, you also must have the wisdom to know the difference between what you can and cannot control.
There are many other aspects of working with and building successful relationships with elected officials that are not covered in this blog post. What skills do you use when you need to build relationships to accomplish goals? What do you wish you knew when you first began your career? Share your examples in the member-only ICMA Connect community forum.