CAO: Key to the Future of Municipal Government

No CAO; no municipality. It really is THAT simple.

Given the essential role that Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) play in running municipalities, Alberta Municipalities’ Future of Municipal Government (FOMG) project will explore trends in municipal administration, focusing on the role of CAOs.

In April, ABmunis provided an overview of the FOMG project at the Local Government Administration Association of Alberta (LGAA) Conference and sought feedback from attendees to help shape research on municipal administration. Attendees primarily included CAOs and senior managers from varying sizes and types of municipalities.

Participants responded to a series of open-ended questions using a web-based tool. What follows is a summary of those responses.

CAOs are motivated by service to community

When participants were asked what attracted them to become a municipal administrator, 42 of 76 responses focused on community service and/or contributing to positive change. Diversity of work followed a distant second with 12 mentions, followed by 11 mentions of salary and benefits, and a couple of mentions of political interest and finding a job close to home. “Money, power and fame”, “glory and adoration of the public”, as well as “love of the MGA”, were other tongue-in-cheek responses that show many municipal administrators have a well-developed sense of humour.

Similarly, when asked about the most rewarding part of their career, the most common responses involved making a positive change in the community through problem-solving and contributing to good decision-making. Eleven responses mentioned positive working relationships with council, the municipal administrative team and/or the community. Seven responses focused on the type of work, in terms of variety of topics and tasks and the opportunity to learn.

Diverse challenges

When asked about the most challenging part of the job, the responses were more diverse. Twenty responses mentioned interaction with the public. Eleven responses mentioned challenges working with council – the expression “herding cats” was used. Issues around human resources were also mentioned 11 times. Heavy workload along with lack of resources to do the job was mentioned 10 times. Lack of municipal funding was also mentioned 10 times. Other responses involved working with neighboring municipalities or the province and bylaw enforcement.

Limited succession planning

Based on the results of our informal survey, fewer than half of municipalities have a succession plan. Fifty per cent of respondents indicated their municipalities did not have one, and another 10 per cent said they did not know. While nearly 40 per cent of respondents said they had a succession plan of some kind, 14 per cent of them said the plan was not worth the computer drive it was stored on!

Room for improvement in relationships with council

Nearly 55 per cent of respondents said their relationships with council were strong and effective. Another 15 per cent indicated that they were still building trust with a new council. The remaining 30 per cent of respondents said their relationships with council could use some work. 

Advice on the Future of Municipal Government project

Respondents provided a wide range of advice on how ABmunis and The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy can ensure that research on administrative viability adds value to the project. Advice included:

  • Ensure research engages a diverse range of municipalities. 
  • Provide meaningful facts and data.
  • Ask good questions and remain open to all potential answers.

More education and outreach desired

The most common response to how ABmunis can support municipal administrators in partnership with the LGAA, or otherwise, was to provide affordable and accessible education opportunities. Other responses revolved around the theme of providing more outreach, communication and follow-up in initiatives undertaking by the associations. A few respondents were kind enough to give ABmunis kudos for hard work and collaboration and encouraged us to keep it up!

A message to elected officials

The final question asked participants to anonymously share a message with elected officials. Common themes, listed in order from most to least mentioned, included:

  • Work with administration as a trusted team – we are all working to serve the community. (Remember the responses to the first question!)
  • Understand and stay within your role.
  • Read your agenda packages.
  • Set realistic expectations and don’t make promises the municipality can’t keep.
  • Carefully consider the impact of your decisions.

ABmunis appreciates the input received from participants at the LGAA conference. We intend to use the results to inform our work as an organization overall, as well as our Future of Municipal Government project.

Stay tuned for information on how you can participate in the Future of Municipal Government project through engagement sessions coming later this month!