Finding Success in Using Community Resources to Deliver Value as a Newly Elected Official
Local elections ushered in many new people to elective office this month. Congratulations! This article is specifically for you — However, feel free to share it with others, since to be successful in your journey all members of the team can benefit from a refresher. Let’s talk about finding success in your efforts to deliver value for your communities (and being responsible stewards of community resources).
What does success in delivering value mean? The answer we would offer — which is a common response on financial policy questions — is: “It depends.” There are different opinions, perspectives, and beliefs around what represents value. If you are a member of an elected board (such as a city council, county commission/council, or a utility district board) then you likely ran for that office with some examples in your mind. You invested energy and took risks to run for elective office for some pretty clear reasons: In other words, things you’d like to see get accomplished. Your success now makes you part of a team of elected officials who will take up these issues (and many more).
Together your team will investigate, discuss, and debate the merits of one option versus another, and there will be competing interests and ideas about what is in the best interest of your constituents. I used to work with someone who would remind others (myself included): “The best answers come from the clash and conflict of competing ideas.” At the end of the day, you’ll be able to participate in these debates and cast your vote for what you believe represents the best value for your community. Remember, local government is a team sport: Your fellow elected officials and agency staffmembers are also on your team. It works best when all team members are prepared, perform their respective roles well, and hold each other to account for their responsibilities.
Elected officials are the policymakers. In some select governments, an elected official can have both a policy and an administrative role (such as a “strong” mayor, or to some extent, certain county elected roles). However, this blog focuses on the policy role of the elected official. In my 40 years of working in local government, I’ve come to understand that policymaking is the hardest job. Here are a few reasons I’ve come to this conclusion:
- The big decisions really fall to the elected board. What should the organization be doing? What are its long-term goals? How should organizational resources be allocated to the various issues?
- A key task of the policymaker is to adopt the agency budget, which should reflect the agency’s priorities by directing appropriate levels of spending resources to these.
- Policymakers perform a key oversight responsibility — Helping to assure your organization is accountable to the public.
Remember, there are other roles in your team as well. Depending on the nature and size of your organization, you’ll have differing numbers of professional staff, each with their own responsibilities, but one of which is to help you be successful in your role. In addition, they’ll have administrative duties related to carrying out the policies you’ve enacted (or that were in place prior to your arrival).
Focusing on Finance
In this team of elected officials and agency staff, someone will be responsible for collecting, safeguarding, and correctly dispensing agency resources. In most local governments, staff are charged with delivering services to your community, such as police work, parks maintenance, water or sewer system maintenance, development review of a proposed or existing project, or a myriad of other projects. Staff will need to be paid a competitive wage so that you can retain an effective workforce — one that delivers the value.
Your role as a policymaker will be to establish the policies, set levels of service, review the reports, and understand the finances of your organization. Your constituents expect you to be able to assure them that their resources are being safeguarded and utilized in an effective and efficient way. To do this you’ll need to get information that is both timely and clear in illustrating this accountability. Better yet, these reports should be available to your constituents as well, such as on a website.
Regular discussions among your team about these activities can help you understand them sufficiently and become familiar with what to look for in order to fulfill your oversight role. Finding the right balance between policy, oversight, and not venturing into someone else’s responsibilities can take time to understand and may require practice. Regular check-ins between elected officials, as well as with agency staff, may also include an open and honest discussion about roles and responsibilities should concerns arise.
A Finance Committee, which has unique assignments and a special financial focus on behalf of the policy board, can help keep team members in their respective roles. Also known as the Audit Committee, this is a subset of the total policy board (usually not a quorum) that devotes additional time on finance-related topics on behalf of the board. It typically is a standing committee and often includes the responsibilities found in RCW 42.24.080.
Here at MRSC we provide a variety of tools to assist you in this work. You’ll see lots of policy advice, samples, blogs, and trainings along these lines. In addition, we offer a type of “help desk” through our Ask MRSC service. We’re here to help you be successful in service to your community. It’s our passion.
Our upcoming webinar on February 12, Building a Foundation for Fiscal Oversight, was designed with elected officials in mind. It will present basic financial concepts to clarify the complex world of governmental accounting and explore the role of the elected official in it. The webinar will also address how finance staff can present the right information to help elected officials (and others) understand the financial picture of an agency.
I hope you’ll take advantage of the tools we offer. If you have a question (or a challenge), I hope you’ll pick up the phone and call us — or submit an “inquiry” to Ask MRSC. We have many years of experience in organizations just like yours. We’ve been there — and now we’re here to help you find success.
Once again, congratulations and welcome to the team.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.