POLITICAL ACUMEN TOOLKIT: INTRODUCTION
Welcome to the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA) Political Acumen Toolkit, an online resource supporting municipal administrators across Canada! We have broken down the Toolkit into sections to help you easily navigate to the information you need. Select a topic from the Table of Contents below, or get started at the beginning with the Introduction.
Table Of Contents
- Administration & Council
- Residents & Ratepayers
- Provincial & Federal
CAOs stand at the crossroads of municipal management and politics. They are the only employee of Council, and therefore, their job is to follow the direction set by the municipality’s elected officials. However, the CAO is also a leader. In this role, the CAO is responsible for managing Council relationships outside of the municipality at other levels of government, supporting and negotiating the interactions between other municipal staff and elected officials, administering the municipality’s relationship with the public they serve, and providing continuity during Council changes. While it is imperative that senior administrators remain apolitical, being able to understand and maneuver politics plays a crucial part in managing the ambiguities that are inherent to their roles.
Recognizing the importance of political understanding to the role of senior administrators in local government, the Board of the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA) formed a Committee to find ways of strengthening political acumen as a core competency for CAOs, their direct reports, and the next generation of municipal leaders. The Political Acumen Toolkit is the result of the efforts of this Committee. It provides information, downloadable resources, and links to additional materials that will support CAOs and senior managers in building a bridge between the administrative and the political realms. Specifically, the toolkit offers advice that clarifies roles and responsibilities with governance, supports relationship-building at all levels, encourages situational- and self-awareness in municipal leaders, helps manage personal risk, and furthers effective communication and stakeholder engagement.
The toolkit also acts as a resource for CAOs to use with aspiring leaders to mentor them in the less tangible skills required to achieve success in the role. Political acumen is a skill that is best learned through coaching, observation, and experience. While every effort has been made to capture the knowledge of experienced CAOs in this toolkit, mentorships are needed to learn firsthand how to navigate the political nature of municipal management. CAMA’s Mentorship Forum was developed in tandem with the toolkit to encourage and facilitate these relationships between experienced and new leaders, as well as support succession planning in local government. Similar to other social networking sites, the Forum is a resource for connecting with other CAMA members, finding mentors, obtaining support from colleagues across the Country, and discussing municipal issues on a pan-Canadian level.
CAOs operate in a unique position, and because of this, they can often feel a lack of support in their roles as they face challenging or even overwhelming situations. Every municipal leader has been there at some point. CAMA hopes this toolkit will become a valuable resource to support senior administrators in their careers, and that the Mentorship Forum will provide a practical way for CAMA members to reach out to each other for support.
Defining Political Acumen
Political Acumen can be defined many ways. CAMA members have described it as:
- Understanding the power structures, motivations, and influences at play in the municipal decision-making process as well as the implications of these decisions at policy-making and public levels.
- Diplomacy and the ability to navigate politically sensitive issues.
- Bridging the technical and the political.
- Critical thinking and emotional intelligence in the political realm.
- Understanding the impact of politics on administration.
- The ability to look at issues from the perspective of elected officials and anticipate public reaction.
- Using effective communication to influence decision-making.
- A combination of intuition and learned skills for understanding, mitigating, or influencing decisions, processes, and their impacts on a municipality.
- Understanding the informal and social implications in addition to the fiscal and operational outcomes of decisions.
Political acumen has been defined by others as:
- “A way of thinking and behaving;”
- Being able to “better guide choices and behaviour in each context in order to accomplish one’s goals and objectives;” and
- A core competency that includes “personal/self knowledge and interpersonal skills, a capacity to read people and situations, a capacity for proactive and strategic stakeholder engagement and alignment, and the ability to use environmental strategic thinking and scanning to understand the context” (Constantinou, 2017, p. 2).
In an online leadership & political acumen course offered through LinkedIn’s learning platform, Lynda.com, political acumen is described as the ability to accurately perceive and judge the formal and informal influences that shape decision-making. That is, it is about reading the situation to make decisions “based on what is really going on” (Andreatta, 2013).
What is clear from these definitions is that political acumen is not any one thing. Instead of being a single specific skill-set, it is a combination of competencies that will serve a CAO and other senior administrators in a variety of different ways. Political acuity needs to be acquired and practiced. While it may come naturally to some individuals, others will need to learn it through experience, observation, and talking to colleagues they trust and respect.
Politics and the Role of a Senior Administrator
The role of a CAO is apolitical, and therefore, it is imperative that the CAO and other administrators remain impartial in all matters. At a high level, the role of Administration is to implement the policies of elected officials. This creates an interesting relationship between the political and the non-political in municipal activities. To successfully navigate this nebulous territory, it is important that municipal leaders understand the politics of a situation as well as have a firm grasp on their role. As much as the CAO and other administrators work in the political realm and need to have a solid understanding of political influences, these roles require that you stay neutral to be able to act effectively on behalf of your municipality.
It is well known that at the federal, provincial/territorial, and, in many cases, the municipal level, partisan politics are entrenched in our governance culture. When changes occur at any level, it shifts perspectives, priorities, and the ways we go about doing business for the public good. Astute CAOs and municipal leaders learn how to adapt to the ever-changing political waters and build a level of trust and credibility with the politicians they work with. Without this, they run the risk of being subject to the opinions of elected officials and can find themselves without a job if they are perceived to be out of alignment with the current political environment or Council.
Developing strong leadership skills plays a significant role in navigating politics as a CAO. Leadership has been defined as the ability to effectively influence others to act in ways that are grounded in shared values, in the pursuit of a shared vision. This is not unlike political acuity itself.
Trust-building is a key ingredient not only for political acumen but for leadership in general. As Kouzes and Posner (2010) state in their book The Truth about Leadership, trust is a fundamental component of your credibility and capacity to get things done. They suggest developing four behaviours to increase your ability to be perceived as trustworthy:
- Behaving predictably and consistently – Letting others know they can count on you.
- Communicating clearly – Being clear about your intentions and commitments.
- Taking your promises seriously – Keeping your word when you make a commitment.
- Being forthright and candid in what you communicate – Knowing what to disclose and what not to while remaining honest in the information you provide.
Honing skills like these will go a long way toward developing your political acumen and leadership style within your municipality. Indeed, leadership and political understanding go hand-in-hand. Focusing on situational leadership and adapting your approach to the context requires a firm grasp of political acumen. Likewise, refining your political acumen skills requires a display of leadership. The role of a CAO and other senior managers is to use both skill-sets to effectively navigate municipal politics while still maintaining a separation between the political and the administrative.
- Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2010). The truth about leadership: The no-fads, heart-of-the-matter facts you need to know.
Top 10 Tips for Achieving Political Acumen
Political acumen requires situational knowledge across a diversity of municipal landscapes. However, there are some truths that apply throughout. Here are the top 10 ways to demonstrate political acuity:
1. Integrity: Maintaining your integrity is crucial to achieving success as a CAO. This rings true in all of your actions as well as supporting ethical behaviour on the part of your elected officials.
2. Roles: Council, the CAO and other Senior Administrators must all have a clear grasp of their role in municipal governance. Council orientations, training, and mentorship are key to understanding the boundaries and mitigating the risk that comes with blurred lines between roles.
3. Priorities: As a CAO your actions should be aligned with those of Council. Take the time to learn what Council’s priorities are, and do not be afraid to clarify if needed.
4. Trust: Establishing trust is a cornerstone of leadership and lays the foundation of political acumen. Trust is not a given and must be earned through your actions.
5. Respect: Even if you do not agree with your political leaders or the decisions they make, you must always respect them and demonstrate this respect to your staff and the public.
6. Transparency: Maintain a culture of no surprises and no secrets between you and your Council. Being transparent and honest is vital to building relationships that will support your career now and into the future.
7. Relationship-Building: Work at building rapport at all levels. Whether it is your staff, your Council, your municipal neighbours, the media, or interactions at the provincial or federal levels, relationship-building goes a long way toward achieving the goals of your municipality.
8. Neutrality: Leave the politics to the politicians. The role of CAO is to remain neutral on issues while offering the best advice possible to the elected officials making the decision and providing leadership to other municipal staff.
9. Communication: Communication is not only what you say but what you hear. Take the time to listen to Council, residents and other stakeholders to truly understand where they are coming from and be honest in the information you provide. Be open and respectful in your discussions with Council and never take anything personally.
10. Feedback: Do not be afraid to ask for feedback. Meeting with your Council formally and informally can help ensure you are aligned with the strategic plan they have set for the municipality. Finding a mentor can also be a valuable resource for working through challenging situations and having someone to go to for support.
Using the Toolkit
The Political Acumen Toolkit was developed by Transitional Solutions Inc. (TSI) in collaboration with the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators (CAMA). TSI is a municipal consulting firm headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta that provides services across Canada. TSI’s team of consultants have been in your shoes as CAOs and senior administrators and have brought their firsthand experience of political acumen in local government to the development of this toolkit.
The authors and the CAMA Political Acumen Committee made every effort to reflect the nuances of different government bodies and their requirements across the Country. However, it is always important to check your local legislation, regulations and bylaws to ensure you are aware of the requirements for each subject matter area in your province or territory. For example, there may be specific requirements for council orientation sessions or council agendas in each part of Canada.
While we have endeavoured to provide as many samples as possible, it is also good to check with a trusted colleague or mentor from your area to receive information on local standards. The Mentorship Forum developed as part of this toolkit can connect you with experienced CAOs and Senior Administrators from across the Country. The Forum also includes discussion threads that can be useful for receiving a diversity of perspectives on an issue.
To facilitate ease of finding information, the Toolkit has been divided into pages and sub-topics to allow you to navigate to the material you need. You can find the full menu of topics at the bottom of every page.
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Administration & Council
- Administration & Council
- Residents & Ratepayers
- Provincial & Federal