Tips for new councillors

Seventeen straight-talking tips to get you started in your new role as an elected councillor were shared with the Municipal Association of Victoria by experienced councillors:

1. Stop freaking out

No one expects you to know everything on day one.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Pick your issues

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

5. Don’t get personal

Councillors have to work together for four years, so don’t personalise issues or go too hard too early. Once council has made a decision, accept it. Even if you disagree, move on and present a unified front.

6. 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.

7. Encourage councillor interaction

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

8. 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.

9. Canvass opinion widely

Don’t confuse the ‘noise’ or views of ‘squeaky wheels’ 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.

10.  Work as a team

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

11.  Pace yourself

As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. And you have four years to achieve your goals.

12.  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 to know what’s possible.

13.  Don’t burn your bridges

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

14.  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.

15.  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.

16.  Learn the art of strategic compromise

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

17.  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.

Where to next?

The Municipal Association of Victoria developed a new resource guide in 2016 to assist newly elected councillors. It contains information about your new role, key council processes, the basics of land use planning, finance and governance as well as councillor training options and a detailed meeting procedures guide.