The difference between politicians and administrators is one of the great strengths of our system of responsible municipal government. But it is also a source of challenge and conflict.
Would better training in the principles of political acuity make a difference in the efficiency of municipal governments?
Political acuity is a set of capabilities and behaviours that enables administrators to understand the politician’s world and navigate in it effectively. It includes self-knowledge and interpersonal skills, an ability to read people and situations, a gift for building stakeholder engagement and alignment, and an understanding of context through strategic thinking and environmental scanning.
Researchers conducted interviews with both elected and non-elected staff as part of a recent study that focused on municipal governments in Ontario’s Durham region. All respondents explicitly stated that tensions between the two groups reduced efficiency and that an inordinate amount of time was wasted disputing roles and trying to resolve conflicts. Civil servants resented elected officials for what they saw as a constant “bending of the rules” and expectations of special treatment. Mayors and councillors described many civil servants as uncooperative and resistant to obeying directives when they are not the ones directly accountable to the people.
All respondents saw political acuity as a positive, admirable quality. While some people were naturally gifted with it, they believed it could also be learned and training in the subject could be beneficial. Political officials and staff defined it as “…understanding how things really work and being onside with getting things done,” and “…[anticipating] future events and individual behaviours in a nuanced context.” Civil servants described it as “a knowledge of what matters to the key players and why, and then occupying that space intelligently,” and “…finding productive ways of working together when tension between the two parts exists.”
The data collected for the study suggests that political acuity, as a core competency, would result in better relations between both parts of the political-administrative dichotomy, and therefore a more effectively run municipality better able to serve the public.
This material is condensed from a research paper, “Political Acuity and Council-Staff Relations”, by Peter Constantinou, a lead instructor in the Masters Certificate in Public Sector Leadership (starting Feb. 4, 2019). The program is designed to help managers and leaders achieve more in public service and to effectively lead change through developing a strategic vision and skill set.