Panel Insights – Managing the Risks Associated with the Council Meeting
According to governance leaders, the council meeting process is one of the most important yet inefficient processes in council. It is the core democratic process of local government, but its complexity presents hidden and costly risks for councils.
We recently hosted a panel discussion at LGPro’s annual Governance Conference in the Hunter Valley. We were joined by local government leaders who highlighted shared challenges facing teams in relation to council meetings.
Jenna Williams was joined by Todd Hopwood, Manager Governance and Customer Service, Wollongong City Council; Flora Lepouras, Executive Manager, Shellharbour City Council; and Sonja Drca, Manager Governance & Legal, Fairfield City Council.
Here’s an overview of the insights discussed on managing key person and business continuity risk while creating, managing and executing the council meeting.
Eliminating Key Person Risk and the Importance of Understanding the Process
For over half of councils, the responsibility of managing the council meeting process rests on the shoulders of just one person. With the complexity, parallel workflows and multiple systems involved in the council meeting, how does the panel build redundancies to ensure the process runs smoothly?
The panel agreed that retaining staff to manage the council meeting process can be difficult. Still, they have all implemented strategies to streamline the process and make it easier for those involved.
“There’s a lack of appreciation of what is involved in one of the most important processes a council undertakes,” said Flora. “We have one person responsible for the end-to-end process of council meetings because when we try to get people involved, they run for the hills. A major challenge for us is that people don’t see the value in the systems we use, so we have gone back to using word – It’s less clunky than what we have, and we don’t have to train people on it.”
There’s a lack of appreciation of what is involved in one of the most important processes a council undertakes.
For Sonja, training people on the meeting process and having systems in place has been key to keeping everyone engaged and managing turnover.
“We have had a very similar experience at Fairfield. It’s important to understand the end-to-end process – what happens behind the scenes, from the staff to the councillors and the executives. We have committee and council meetings, so it’s important that our staff are familiar with the code of meeting practice and how to prepare reports,” she expressed.
“While meetings usually fall on one person, there comes the point where you have to train others. One of the things I did was form written procedures. I did have a staff turnover, and I found that was the best tool I had. It was a document that put in place why we do what we do, what needs to happen – and then instructions covering click this, press that.
Todd agreed that keeping people engaged in the process could be difficult. As a result, he now has a Governance Team of four who manage each meeting on rotation.
The Panel (L-R): Jenna Williams, Flora Lepouras, Todd Hopwood, Sonja Drca
Managing the Stress, Frustration and Gaining Executive Buy-In
With many stakeholders interfacing with the meeting process, it can be very frustrating and stressful for Governance Teams and Meeting Administrators who pull it all together. One point that did come up in the insights report was the lack of visibility at an executive level when it comes to the pain and suffering that teams go through.
The panellists recognised this was an issue and provided advice on how they gained executive buy-in to make changes to meetings. Todd discussed the many approaches that he has taken to help encourage change.
“Executive buy-in can be hard if your General Manager or Corporate Services Manager didn’t come from the Governance stream – if they haven’t been through the pain of council meetings and just turn up to the meeting, or if they haven’t lived and breathed it. So one of the tools I’ve used was getting onto the internal audit plan and influencing the scope to make sure it looks at pre-meeting processes and efficiencies.”
Todd also encouraged councils to ensure their Governance Teams can make simple changes in the business review meetings to speed up the process.
Executive buy-in can be hard if your General Manager or Corporate Services Manager didn’t come from the Governance stream – if they haven’t been through the pain of council meetings and just turn up to the meeting, or if they haven’t lived and breathed it.
The Transparency Challenge
From internal challenges with visibility of progress actions and resolutions to easy, consumable access to information – we asked the panel to share their experiences on how they are working to achieve greater transparency. It was evident from all panellists that technology played a role in achieving ultimate transparency.
While Wollongong’s council meeting process is quite open, they aim to move to a transparent view of councillor activity.
“We want to get to a point where we have councillor profiles on our website where people can then just click on them and view benefits directly linked and conflicts of interest,” explained Todd. “We also want our reports to link to the previous reports so you can just follow the bouncing ball, and if there’s community engagement action, you can just click and see the voting records. We want to have an approach where the customer can follow the bouncing ball and not have to know where to find information.”
For Sonja, the challenges she faces regarding visibility relate to centralising information in one place and encouraging teams to provide updates shortly and succinctly for greater transparency.
“I find people have a tendency to just write it’s in progress or ongoing. I say to them, tell a story, but please be mindful that we don’t need the bible; I want a short, succinct summary of the status of the matter. Obviously, with time, you do training, and people are getting better at that – you just need to give them the guidance, and that really puts things in context for them.
I find people have a tendency to just write it’s in progress or ongoing. I say to them, tell a story, but please be mindful that we don’t need the bible; I want a short, succinct summary of the status of the matter,
Sonja described that while the publishing process for Shellharbour is currently manual, the goal is to have all actions and responses visible to the community.
“In an ideal world, we would love to be able to have our actions and responses and tasks on our website; at the moment, it’s a manual system - we have the council resolution, an action and an update, and that table goes to councillors, but it’s not published on the website for the public to see which is a great idea.”
Effective Ways to Encourage Public Engagement
Another aspect of achieving transparency is public engagement. Flora explained how Shellharbour uses strategies to make it easy for its community to view and interact with the published council meetings.
“We have open Council Meetings. We webcast them live and publish them on our website the next day,” said Flora. “We have also tried to slow the whole council process down so people get an understanding of what happens in a council meeting. We have created what we call mock minutes, which is basically a transcript of every meeting. A staff member looks at the business paper and prepares these minutes, and it steps through the process so that any member of the public watching a council meeting can see what is happening every step of the way.”
To view the full Insights Report discussed, please click here.
Redman Solutions are proud Corporate Supporters of LG Professionals NSW and look forward to attending and hosting more thought-provoking discussions in the future.