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close this bookTraining for Elected Leadership - The Councillor as Power Broker (HABITAT, 1994, 18 p.)
close this folderPart I - The Councillor as Power Broker
View the documentDefinition
View the documentSummary
View the documentReflection
View the documentConcepts and ideas
View the documentReflection
View the documentSome miscellaneous thoughts about power
View the documentYou and your hired help
View the documentForging an effective partnership
View the documentKey points
View the documentReferences

Concepts and ideas

The definition we have given your role as power broker defies the complexity it embodies. One political scientist likened power to “one of those awful big tent concepts under which a three ring circus - at least - is going on.” Max Weber, the German sociologist, who is known best for his description of the bureaucratic phenomena, once said:

Power is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will, despite resistances, regardless of the basis on which this probability exists.1

We could go on at great length attempting to define power but we’re not sure how useful that might be.

Some might even question the wisdom of addressing this issue in a set of training materials such as these. There is a tendency to view power in the following terms:

“The topic is too political.”
“Local politicians have more power now than they can use responsibly.”
“Power is evil, maybe necessary, but evil. 1 don’t think we ought to talk about it.”
“The last thing councillors need is more power. Don’t give them any more ideas!”

Unfortunately, these kinds of statements have a “ring of truth’ to them. We don’t have to go very far to find examples of the abuse of power by local elected officials, or misuse of the authority that is vested in the office. We would be naive to think that no one runs for public office because they “want to get rich,” or because they “have a political score to settle.” Local corruption of power may even be the most heinous abuse of authority because it is against one’s neighbour. At least at the national level of government, the faces of our neighbours become more blurred, less recognizable, and the abuse of power more impersonal.

We all know you have the potential to abuse your position as councillor. But there is another side to that coin. The power that you assume when you take on the authority vested in your office as an elected official is also the greatest source of latent energy you have to get things done for your community. You may have noticed that we used the word “authority” in our attempt to describe your power base. Some would argue that power and authority are the same, but we think they are different, at least different enough to spend a few moments sorting out what we think the differences are.

Authority is the legal framework within which you and other councillors work to get things accomplished on behalf of your community. Authority is the system that is put in place to implement collective values. Authority is consent legitimately given to you and the council to direct certain activities and to utilize certain resources to achieve collective or community purposes. Your authority, as a councillor, is your legitimacy or formal source of power, but it’s not the only source of power you can draw upon to get things done.

Power has been a topic of fascination to politicians and academicians alike for as long as either has been able to think about it. And, the academicians have been trying to categorize the sources of power for as long as politicians and others have been putting them to the test. French and Raven are two who have managed to define the sources of power as well as any. Here are their categories:

1. Reward power is based on my belief that you can provide rewards promotions, favours, recognition, access to material and other resources;

2. Coercive power results from my percept-ion that you have the ability to punish - to inflict pain, reprimand, demote, and take away privileges;

3. Legitimate power is based on the official position you hold in the community. This position gives you the right to exert power over me and others;

4. Referent power comes from my identification with you as someone who possesses personal traits that engender such responses as respect, obedience, and allegiance;

5. Expert power is based on my belief that you possess some special knowledge, skills, or expertise; and Information power results from my belief that you have information, or access to information, that is important to me.

To the six categories of power described by French and Raven, we want to add two more we believe are common to the experiences of elected officials. They are:

7. Connection power is based on my belief that you, as a councillor, have connections with influential or important people; and,

8. Catalytic power results from your ability to combine two or more of your bases of power, each of which by itself may be insufficient to produce results.

Let’s look at these potential sources of power in more depth. The first three sources (reward, coercive, and legitimate) are based on your official office. These are potential sources of power that come automatically with your election as a councillor. They also provide you with the ability to change someone else’s behaviour despite their resistance to your efforts. Now, that’s real power!

The next four sources of power (information, referent, expert, and connection) are only available to use if other people believe you possess them. In other words, if you believe you are an expert in some area of specialization but no one else thinks you are, it is hardly a source of power for you to exploit. Now, you could turn that around if you convince us that you really are an expert. The same is true of the others. For example, you may in fact have “connections” but they don’t translate into a source of power if those you are “connecting with don’t reciprocate. In other words, these sources require a transactional relationship between you and others before they become empowering options you can employ to get things done.

The final source, catalytic power, depends on your creative talents to visualize how various combinations of power sources can provide you with the resources you need to do what you want to do. Once envisioned, of course, you also need the ability to put them together effectively.

When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.

- Ethiopian proverb

Another way to look at the issue of power is whether you can act unilaterally or whether you need to act in concert with others. We have dealt with one aspect of that, based on your legislated powers. While these powers are individually conferred to councillors, they rarely can be exercised by individual councillors. This is not necessarily the case with the mayor or other individuals who hold an office with its own source of legislated powers. But, let’s look at only those sources of power that are conferred to you as a member of a larger body. On the whole, your ability to reward someone or some collective group, or to punish someone or group (coercive power), or to use your legitimate source of power, legitimately, is either non-existent or severely limited by the fact that you are only one member of the legal body that has these powers. Given this, your real source of power with your peers is not in the reward-coercive-legitimate categories but rather in the use of the others. If, for example, you have personal traits that other councillors find attractive and they are inclined to not only agree with you but cast their vote in your favour because of these personal traits, then you have increased your power quotient.

The same is true of expertise. If your colleagues know you know more than they know about some topic under consideration, they may defer to your judgement I making decisions as a collective body. This would increase your power to get things done. But, it’s not a given, is it? We’ve all seen situations where someone has considerable expertise but no one wants to listen to them because they are otherwise unattractive, or have damaged their credibility as an expert, for one reason or another.

Information and connection power sources are more difficult to assess when the individuals operate within a system where power is collectively distributed. If you have information that others don’t, and you use it judiciously and at the right time, it may give you considerable leverage (power) with your peers when it comes time to vote. One of the authors had an experience as a city manager that demonstrates this point. The city council was about to extend a very lucrative water-use agreement to a local foundry based on some dubious criteria when the city manager informed the council that the foundry had been using city property illegally for years (property that figured into the new agreement). That information effectively changed the council’s vote from one in the foundry’s favour to one that was against it. (We might also add that the disclosure nearly got the city manager fired from his job. It turned out the owner of the foundry had more “connection power” with the council than the city manager.)

Catalytic power is one which has more promise and potency than most of us realize. Often the legal authority of the council is not sufficient to achieve complex projects or to initiate services that may be controversial and complicated. In these cases, it may make sense to review systematically the sources of power we’ve identified to determine if there are opportunities to use a combination of power sources to accomplish your goal.

The power of the individual takes on an ironic twist if the council is split into two factions and one councillor is sitting in the middle of this split with no commitment to either side. This “middle person’ may not be particularly powerful in his or her personal attributes. Nevertheless, persons in this situation can, and do in many situations, wield a lot of power they wouldn’t possess otherwise. Again, we would like to draw from our own experiences to demonstrate the point.

One of the authors lives in a small community where some citizens organized a coup to take over the local board of education because of rising costs and other concerns. (“Coup” makes it sound very mysterious and a bit romantic.) Actually, the citizens were able to get five people elected on a last minute write-in ballot. Since the board has nine members, this meant they were successful in gaining the majority, or the power to control the votes and the agenda. Victory, yes - but only temporarily. One of the newly-elected board members decided he liked the incumbent board members better and moved across the aisle. He, in effect, negated all the success his former board members and their supporters were able to garner in a hotly contested election for control of the school system. Now, that’s power!

Before we continue, we want to give you an opportunity to reflect for a few moments about your efforts in the council or in other situations when you were in a position to exercise power.