Three Steps to Prepare for Council

Author(s): Jim Kirk

Close up of the words Any information and information technology (I&IT) leader in local government charged with driving transformation will inevitably have some level of engagement with their municipal council. The interactions can range from the mundane (i.e. seeking approval for the award of a piece of procurement) to impactful discussions regarding major service delivery changes or strategy formulation. A critical success factor for any CIO/I&IT leader is to quickly establish credibility with council through a clear articulation of your go-forward plans followed up with crisp, consistent execution. Being highly responsive doesn’t hurt either.

Fortunately for me, one of my first trips to council was of the mundane variety. My team and I were concluding the procurement of new backup infrastructure (about $500k capital expenditure). In my mind, this procurement was about as vanilla as procurements get in IT. As such, I didn’t spend enough time anticipating what questions I might be asked. The last question before the vote was a curveball: “Given references to ‘modernization’ and ‘efficiencies’ in this report, how many fewer FTEs will the IT department need following the implementation?” Not expecting this, I stammered a bit during the open of my response but managed to salvage things by pivoting to the risk associated with the existing infrastructure and how efficiencies created will be reinvested in higher value activity. The vote passed, but I decided then and there to better anticipate what I might be asked going forward.

What follows is a simple three-step guide aimed at making your trip to council a straightforward success:

  1. Understand the etiquette associated with interacting with council in your jurisdiction. Some jurisdictions remain true to longstanding traditions associated with how staff interact with the mayor and council. For instance, etiquette may dictate that a CIO/I&IT leader not respond directly to the question of a councilor but instead direct their response back through the mayor to the councilor. Other jurisdictions may have less pomp and circumstance and support more informal dialogue with council. Regardless, it is imperative you understand what is expected of you as etiquette is a key aspect of professionalism in local government. Look to your city/town clerk for guidance as they are experts in all protocols associated with the workings of council.
  1. Ensure alignment with your city manager or chief administrative officer (CAO) on the information and/or recommendations you put to council. This may be done through your reporting relationship to the chief financial officer or there may be a highly formal process or workflow in place that forces a multistage review of materials prior to their release to and discussion with council. Often the city will offer professional development around council report writing and the processes therein. If these are available, show interest and make the time.

Having effective, collaborative, and adaptable IT governance in place can ensure IT is aligned to the city’s strategic objectives. Having this alignment from the start can ease the process of preparing for council.

A thought model entitled 'Make Governance Adaptable and Automated to Drive Success and Value'

  1. Fortune favors the prepared. Preparedness for council takes two forms. The first is the mastery of the subject matter. The second is more contextual to the councilors themselves. Understanding their priorities, key issues they campaigned on, and even their political ideology can help you anticipate questions you may be asked. A couple of examples from my time at council include:

    • Regularly being asked by a fiscally conservative councilor whether there would be savings opportunities following the award of an RFP for an expensive technology product or service.

    • Seeking support for a smart city agenda predicated on investing in fiber in the downtown core, only to be asked by councilors representing suburban and rural residents how those investments would benefit their constituents.

Though model entitled 'Business Relationship Management Areas to Focus on.'

Our Take

In local government, council (and councilors) are key stakeholders with the authority and influence to either support or disrupt digital transformation. A high-functioning business relationship management function can aid in understanding council priorities and synthesizing these with the aspirations of city departments.

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