I've run lots of 'political awareness' workshops with local government officers and other groups who deal with councillors on a regular basis. These workshops have helped delegates to understand the vital role that elected Members play - in decision-making, representing others and leading communities. On the flip-side, and just as importantly, councillors who have attended the workshops have gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the challenges that officers face.
So much of it is about understanding each other, reflecting on experience, and building empathy. I've taken these key elements and turned them into a recipe for good member-officer relationships. Fancy trying it in your organisation?
A recipe for good Member-Officer relationships
A selection of local councillors
One large organisation (preferably a Council, but any other big complicated organisation will do)
You and your team
Respect (large dollop)
Learning (sprinkle liberally throughout)
Potential for thousands of portions - to be enjoyed by organisations, teams, individuals and communities
Step one. Reflection
Firstly, wash and peel your large organisation so that you can work out exactly what it is, how it operates and why. Spend some time reflecting on the organisation with your team. Who is leading it? (really?) Who stops things getting done? Where do you fit in? Explore what makes the ingredients different, and what makes them the same.
Step two. Building empathy
This bit takes some time. Mix in the councillors and slowly introduce the ingredients to each other so that they all understand their different roles, responsibilities and strengths. Provide as much exposure as possible - never hide the ingredients from each other! Stir in the following quote:
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view... Until you climb inside of their skin and walk around in it."*
Step three. Develop a respectful culture
Add a big dollop of respect and leave in a warm place, so that a positive culture develops. If any ingredients do not 'take' to the new culture, ensure that you work hard with them so that they understand what kind of language and treatment of others is acceptable. All of your ingredients should know how to behave, so make sure the organisation's values and expectations are made clear to them when they are first added to the mixture.
Step four. Increasing contact
Many problems with member-officer relationships in Councils are due to a lack of contact and proximity. So blend the officers and the councillors together, but make sure you use non-confrontational activities to do this (great methods for blending include joint learning programmes, social events, invitations to team meetings, shared celebrations, shadowing and buddying).
You should now have a nice mixture of ingredients - so bake in the oven (always adhering to the Council's health and safety advice!) Once cooked, share it and ensure that you celebrate the results.
Expect this recipe to go wrong occasionally. Don't blame the ingredients. Instead, reflect on the experience and start from the beginning again.
*from Harper Lee "To Kill a Mockingbird"