Tips for new councillors

Adjusting to your new role as councillor may be challenging. You’ll have to learn the language of local government, pick up new skills, and absorb a lot of information in a short amount of time.

Your council will offer an induction program early on to help you through this learning curve as well as learning and development programs.

The first thing you will need to do is gain a clear understanding of your roles and responsibilities as well as the processes and strategies of your council.

The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) has a Councillor Development Training Program that can assist you in making the leap from citizen to councillor, and have put together a New Councillor Resource Guide.

The MAV asked experienced councillors for the advice they would have liked to help them through their first few weeks in office.

Don’t freak out

No one expects you to know everything on day one.

Don’t give up

It may seem very challenging – even overwhelming at the start – but it does get easier and you’ll achieve a better work-life balance as time goes on.

Ask for help

It’s impossible to be an expert in everything. That’s what officers are there for – so use them. It’s not a sign of weakness or stupidity, but intelligence.

Pick your issues

Don’t use all your political capital immediately. Choose the issues you see as being critical and work towards achieving them.

Don’t get personal

You will have to work with your fellow councillors for four years, so try not to personalise issues. Once council has decided, accept it. Even if you disagree, move on and present a unified front.

Explain, don’t blame

If you’re asked to talk about a council decision you don’t agree with, explain but don’t blame. It’s counter-productive to undermine a decision once it’s been made.

Encourage councillor interaction

Make sure the administration creates opportunities and allows time for councillors to get to know each other and become a team.

Be assertive

Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t question it or that it’s necessarily right. This not only applies to council, but also to you.

Canvass opinion widely

Don’t confuse the ‘loudest voice’ with the views of everyone in the community. While the person in the street may be adamant that their view is commonplace, it’s important to canvass opinions thoroughly.

Work as a team

The council is not just councillors but includes the CEO and council staff – one team, one dream!

Pace yourself

As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. You have four years to achieve your goals – don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Never promise or over-promise anything before speaking to council or the administration. It’s important to understand the broader context and what’s possible.

Build relationships

Scoring points by attacking or undermining someone may mean that person won’t support you when you need them.

Earn the respect of the community

How you behave affects your credibility with the community and their level of trust in, and support of council decisions.

Be informed

Don’t get pressured into answering questions immediately; there’s nothing wrong with taking time to make sure you have the information you need to respond. Off-the-cuff, ill-informed answers can often cause more problems than they solve.

Learn the art of strategic compromise

There’ll be times when you must compromise. So be strategic and identify the issues you’re willing to compromise on. You can’t win every debate.

Seek support

Remember, you’re not alone. A good support network will greatly assist you in your first months. If you’re having problems in your new role, talk to other new councillors as they’re probably experiencing similar difficulties.

“It’s about the opportunity to influence the decision-making at the table, to provide outcomes for your community that they value in the way of services, facilities, assets and bringing the community together on a very neighbourly level.”

Judith Voce, former mayor and councillor at City of Boroondara.