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close this bookTraining for Elected Leadership - The Councillor as Overseer (HABITAT, 1994, 16 p.)
close this folderPart I. Essay on the councillor as overseer
View the documentDefinition
View the documentSummary
View the documentReflection
View the documentConcepts and ideas
View the documentGeneral benchmarks and targets
View the documentOverseeing policy development
View the documentOverseeing implementing
View the documentOnce implementation is underway
View the documentKey points
View the documentReferences


The councillor, in the role of OVERSEER, ensures that the council and staff are doing the right things and doing things right through such activities as monitoring and evaluating policies, programmes, and services.1


We'll look at the role of the councillor as overseer of policy making and implementation from the perspectives of efficiency and effectiveness. We will also explore why this role is so difficult to fulfill.


When I think of myself as an overseer of council and local government decisions and activities, the following things come to mind:

1. ________________________________________________________
2. ________________________________________________________
3. ________________________________________________________

Concepts and ideas

Being an overseer of one's own behaviour as a councillor and assessing the staff 's efforts to implement council's directives is probably not your favorite responsibility as an elected official. It is much more interesting to make policy and to initiate programmes and services than tracking them to see if they are being implemented as planned and adopted. In addition to being a less attractive part of your job as councillor, the overseer role is fraught with some problems. These need to be examined in an effort to help you perform this responsibility with efficiency and effectiveness.

First, the overseer role often falls to one or two councillors who either have a background that gives them some expertise (such as an accountant or personnel officer) or someone who wants to get involved in the day-to-day operations of the local government. This responsibility is too important to be left either to a small group of "experts" or to those who want to supervise street level activities. It needs to be embraced by all councillors.

Secondly, there is a tendency on the part of many councillors to view the overseer duty as an opportunity to get involved in the day-to-day operations of the local government staff. Unless your city is so small that it cannot afford competent managers and elected officials are expected to supervise day to day operations, it is better not to get too deeply involved in administration. It can undermine the authority of your management team and de-motivate, if not demoralize, those responsible for implementation.

Thirdly, being an objective "overseer" is difficult, if not impossible, if you don't have benchmarks against which to judge performance. Objectivity also diminishes whenever council members get involved in the implementation process.

Lastly, council must make a commitment to this overseer role and be prepared to spend the time and energy it will take if it is to have any meaning or impact on council's performance or the performance of the organization.

General benchmarks and targets

The overseer role can be summarized as assessing whether or not the local government is operating effectively and efficiently. This definition is both simple and complex. Simple because these are terms we have heard ever since we have had any role or experience in organized settings. Complex because they cut across everything the council and local government does. The terms "efficiency" and "effectiveness" are most often associated with private-sector organizations, but they have equal significance as ways to look at public institutions.

Peter Drucker, that venerable world resource on the practice of management, defines "effectiveness" as doing the right things and "efficiency" as doing things right.2 In simplistic terms we could say that effectiveness is the elected leader's primary responsibility whereas efficiency is primarily the role of the local-government officers and employees. The problem with this easy dichotomy is the fact that a council also needs to look at how it does "the right things," and the management team must also be concerned with whether it is doing what it should be doing as well as whether it is doing these things right.

Councillors, in determining whether they are doing the right things, might want to review all the city's programmes and services from two perspectives: (a) Is this particular service or programme still needed by the community? and (b) If it is still needed, should the city be the producer or should someone else be producing it? One could say, we suppose, that this latter question really gets into the realm of "doing things right." But, the council also must decide whether it is right to be doing it at all On the other hand, if the council decides that it should not be performing the service directly (for example, solid-waste collection) but rather contracting it out to the private sector, the council still has a vital role to play in service implementation according to community standards. Rather confusing, isn't it?

Just to confuse the discussion a bit more, let's look at what Osborne and Gaebler, the authors of Reinventing Government, have to say about these terms. They say " efficiency is a measure of how much each unit of output costs; whereas, effectiveness is a measure of the quality of that output (how well it achieved the desired outcome)."' These authors seem to beg the question of "doing the right things" that Drucker says is the essence of effectiveness. But the authors who are proposing ways to re-invent government cover this by use of the terms "outputs" and outcomes."

Osborne and Gaebler say "there is a vast difference between measuring process and measuring results." But what does this have to do with outputs and outcomes? Well, according to them, everything! Outputs, they say, don't produce outcomes. If, for example, your community's vocational school is graduating 50 students a year in irrigation-pump maintenance, but there are no jobs available as irrigation pump mechanics, how good is the programme? Or, in Drucker's terms, is the school doing the right thing? The school's output is impressive but the outcomes are nil since these new graduates are unable to get jobs in the trade for which they were trained. It's a case of doing something well that doesn't need to be done at all.

We find ourselves somewhat at odds with the definitions of Osborne and Gaebler. For example, in the situation just noted, the school superintendent could argue that he was successful in meeting both criteria. That is, (a) he came under the projected costs of producing an irrigation pump maintenance graduate and (b) the quality of the graduates meet industry standards (they can perform all the tasks expected as a result of this type of educational programme). The authors would, no doubt, counter-argue that the superintendent was not successful in terms of effectiveness because his graduates are not working in positions that use their skills.

You can begin to see the dilemma in attempts to be too precise about the particulars of the overseer's responsibilities. To return to the school superintendent for a moment, how can he be held accountable for the job environment? Isn't that someone else's job? And yet, if he and his staff were carrying out a strategic planning process efficiently (doing planning and forecasting right) which is also effective (because planning and forecasting are the right things to do as managers), they should. have known there was no demand for their product. In this case, they could have retooled their operations to train other kinds of technicians (e.g., sewer plant operators) based on a demonstrated need.

Overseeing policy development

The closer you get to the performance of specific tasks, the easier the overseer role becomes. Unfortunately, your councillor role as overseer is not to scrutinize specific tasks, although the temptation is always great to tell the street crew it doesn't know how to fix a pothole, particularly the one at the end of your driveway. As a member of the elected leadership body of the community, you need to resist these kinds of temptations and focus your overseer attention at higher levels of community concern.

The highest level of scrutiny you need to exercise will not be defined in any legal document outlining the legislative boundaries of your role as councillor. Rather, it has more to do with your ability to do the right things beyond the legal dictates of the job. When Drucker was referring to effectiveness, we are confident that he was not confining his remarks to the legal parameters of the council's role. He says "effectiveness is the foundation of success - efficiency is a minimum condition for survival after success has been achieved."

In most situations you will be faced with overseeing the effectiveness of both policies and programmes. Policy effectiveness is much more difficult to assess because it is concerned, in part, with whether you have made the right choices between competing demands for scarce resources. For example, would it have been more effective to have allocated funds for a new elementary school, to repave five streets, or to initiate a new pre-natal training programme? Obviously, the effectiveness of these kinds of decisions is highly subjective. Nevertheless, you and your colleagues must go beyond subjectivity to make these kinds of decisions.

Several factors enter into the picture at this point:

· Is there a demonstrated need for the programme and service you are considering?
· Is it feasible to do anything that will make a difference?
· Who else could do it as well or better?

After you have satisfied these kinds of inquiries and the policy is enacted, the overseer role becomes one of monitoring and evaluating efforts to implement it:

· Is the programme or service meeting the need you thought it would when you initiated it?

· How well is the need being met?

· Did you misjudge the magnitude of the task and your ability to make a difference (the feasibility trap)?

· Can and should the programme or service be produced by someone else, subject to your continued overseeing?

The ideal time to undertake these kinds of policy assessments is during budget deliberations. While we have not advocated zero-based budgeting (ZBB) as an approach to financial management, the underlying philosophy and strategy makes a lot of sense as a way to evaluate policy performance. ZBB essentially says that every programme and service should be reappraised at the beginning of each budget cycle. At the beginning of each budget cycle, you could ask your chief administrator or finance officer to prepare a list of all current programmes and services. Each programme or service would then be assessed, using the questions listed above and any other the council might believe important to determine future direction.

This kind of systematic inquiry will help your council keep a better focus on those policies that lend themselves to monitoring and evaluation. Overseeing policy implementation is an attempt to provide long-range navigation for your community. It's as though you are on a long space journey and need to make mid-course corrections. It is also a time when you take stock of what you have on board that can be jettisoned to help you conserve your resources for the long haul.

Overseeing implementing

The council's role in overseeing the performance of those programmes and services that you have enacted is a more rigorous process. As elected leaders the world over have learned, there can often be a sobering gap between what a council legislates and what its staff implements. The implementation gap, as it is often characterized, is nothing more than the disparity between what the council wants in terms of performance, and sets forth in policies and financial plans, and what actually happens once the policy and budget are carried out. Let's look at some of the reasons why the implementation gap develops and plagues a council's best intentions.

A small hole can sink a big ship.
- Russian proverb

1. Policy-making is relatively easy; implementation is not. This may be the biggest reason why the gap develops and persists. Policy discussions that do not consider the cold realities of what it will take to carry out programmes and services are bound to lead to follow-through problems.

2. Before any policy or programme can be implemented successfully, there needs to be a strategy for implementation. A strategy might be defined as a set of actions devised to achieve a policy goal. If it is a simple initiative, the strategy may evolve out of a few meetings with the local government's chief executive and department heads. At other times it may require a lengthy set of discussions and negotiations to prepare the organization to take on new responsibilities.

3. Policies are often under-resourced. The lack of adequate resources may be the biggest reason why policies become "underachievers" when they reach the implementation stage of development. Often, it is the lack of funds that create the performance discrepancy between policy and implementation. But, more money is not the only answer. The need for additional staff and staff development is also a major performance barrier. Many local governments believe they can expand their programmes without expanding their staffs ability to deliver. Often new policies require new employee knowledge, skills, and attitudes if they are to be implemented successfully.

4. Operating and maintenance costs are often underfunded. The long-term costs of operating and maintaining new capital programmes and services are so often overlooked by local governments that they have become a major embarrassment, not only to these local governments, but to funding institution s such as the World Bank. Developing countries have some of the world's most exotic junk yards. We have seen scores of motor pools where expensive equipment sits idle. Vehicles were wrecked because employees were not trained to operate them. Others were "cannibalized" to obtain spare parts that weren't available at the time. Local governments aren't always to blame for these difficulties. Donors often make equipment available but ignore the need for training in its operation and maintenance.

5. When those responsible for implementing new programmes and services are not sufficiently involved in the planning process, they can become a part of the implementation gap problem. Developing staff understanding about new ventures and commitment to them must come at the beginning of the planning/policy-making process. It is never too early to involve those who will be responsible for implementation.

6. The same is true of programme or service recipients. As you and the local government organization plan and implement new initiatives, don't ignore the recipients of your efforts, the customers. It has become conventional wisdom that community participation can enhance the planning and development of new initiatives. What is less well known is the role community members canperform in monitoring and evaluating local-government programmes and services if they are properly trained and organized.

7. Don't ignore the need for staff and organization development. Even though new skills or knowledge may not be essential to undertake new council initiatives, there may be attitudes within the staff that could slow or block implementation. Many local governments have used team building as a means to overcome these kinds of barriers to performance. This is a facilitator-led effort to assist a team to look at the way its members work together, engage in some action planning, and consider organization-type barriers to better performance. These barriers include such things as unnecessary procedures, organizational units that are misplaced or not congruent with task needs, an the lack of incentive systems to motivate better performance. Individual and organization development interventions can be critical to successful implementation. Investments in human resource development can pay big dividends and should not be seen as frivolous expenditures or unnecessary rewards to employees.

8. The-effective overseer needs a monitoring system to track performance. The overseer responsibility of council can be greatly aided by a good monitoring strategy. The strategy should include both quantitative and qualitative measures. However, be cautious of those who are eager to promote the collection of quantitative data. Sometimes lending agencies and agency staff members get over-enthusiastic about the kinds of indicators they want monitored. Collect only the data and information you need to track the progress of policies or programmes being implemented. Involve those who be responsible for implementation in the monitoring discussions and decision process.

Take a look at your monitoring and evaluation system from time to time to s if it is providing the information and insights you need to operate the programme. Try to isolate the monitoring and evaluation process from both political and managerial interference. Maximize the amount of attention give to performance data. While looking at the internal processes of implementation is important, it is critical that you know whether you are achieving the outcomes anticipated of implementation.

9. Everyone with a significant role in implementation needs to understand the goals and strategies of the new initiative, including their own roles and responsibilities for the new initiative, and they must be committed to carrying them out. If understanding and commitment are not in place before you start implementation, take whatever time is needed to reach this state before moving on.

You may be saying that many of these issues have nothing to do with the overseer role and responsibility of councils and everything to do with policy-making. Yes and no. Yes, because they should be considered very early in any policy discussion on new venture development. No, because they will come to haunt you in your overseer role if they aren't addressed before implementation begins. So, we risk redundancy by emphasizing again the groundwork that is required during the policy and programme development phases if you want to ease the burden of overseeing implementation.

Once implementation is underway

If you have followed many of the suggestions outlined above, you should be in an excellent position to conduct routine monitoring and evaluation efforts. Here are some thoughts on how to be more effective in your overseer role once implementation is underway.

1. Don't get too involved, but get involved enough. The two greatest problems with councillors in carrying out their overseer role are over-involvement and under-involvement. Those of you who tend to get over-involved begin to undermine the staff's authority and responsibilities for implementation. Under involvement is often seen by staff as either disinterest, non-support, or a license to stray from the mandates of the council initiative. Both extremes of overseer behaviour can impede the implementation process.

2. Recognize the need for flexibility and inevitable adjustments in that which is being implemented. It is virtually impossible to envision every contingency that will visit the implementation of new policies and programmes. Be prepared to help the implementing staff or organization adjust to the emerging realities of operation.

3. Make room for the ambiguity that resides in the grey zones between policy and administration. There is more interdependence between the elected leadership and the administrative staff than either side likes to admit. Try to be comfortable with the zone of ambiguous feelings, messages, and actions that separate your respective territories. Negotiate the uncertainties that threaten to slow or sidetrack your efforts to move projects and programmes forward.

4. Decide how you're going to resolve differences between clashing factions before they begin to clash. Conflict is inevitable with new ventures and, as we said in the handbook on The Councillor as Facilitator, a healthy sign that progress is being made and people are thinking in alternative ways. Given its inevitability, plan on how you will manage the conflict in your overseer role and help others manage it in your absence.

5. Don't be afraid to say: "Enough is enough!" One of the great failings of elected bodies is to do a lot of high-decibel moaning and groaning when things go wrong, but then fail to take meaningful and decisive action to fix it.

The overseer role can give the council leverage to ensure that it gets what it thought it intended to get when it enacted policies and approved the budget. Your efforts in this arena of engagement with the local-government operations staff should provide assurance that your direction is being carried out and that the implementation gap between your intentions and expectations never grows beyond that which is reasonable and acceptable.

Key points

· Most councillors are more interested in making policies and initiating new programmes than they are in overseeing them once they are in place.

· Efficiency and effectiveness are important benchmarks for determining performance.

· If you have to sacrifice one of them for the other, make sure its efficiency. Usually there is more than one way to be efficient. Being effective is more difficult.

· Policy outcomes are more important than programme outputs.

· Three factors should dominate your efforts to oversee your own policy making and programme planning activities:

- Does it meet a demonstrated need?
- Is it feasible to implement within our community's means?
- Who else could do it as well or better than we can?

· Overseeing implementation involves closing the implementation gap before it has a chance to gape.

· When you under-resource any programme or policy activity, you are unfair to everyone involved, including yourself

· It's usually a safe bet to wager money on a council's unwillingness to fund maintenance.

· It is wise to involve all those who will be significant in the implementation of any council initiative in the planning and development of that initiative.

· Staff and institutional development should be treated as a cost of doing business in local governments and factored into every new policy and programme initiative undertaken by a council.

· Develop a monitoring and evaluation system that meets your needs and no more.

· Get consensus on all of the key issues of your policy and programme on initiatives before your staff or contractors begin to implement them.

· Don't be an over-zealous overseer. You could lose your effectiveness just when you need it most.

Misfortunes always come in by a door that has been left open.
- Chez proverb


1. "Overseer" is another role label that has created some concerns so let's talk about it before we proceed any further. In some parts of the world, an overseer is someone who looks after the roads. Obviously, that's not what we have in mind. We, along with others, considered the following alternatives: "policy and programme supervisor," but this didn't sound right; "quality controller," but images of factory engineers came to mind; and finally, "monitor" and "evaluator," but each sounded too limiting. The role we envision includes some of all these descriptions, and more. Essentially, we believe councillors should be concerned that they are doing the right things (exhibiting effectiveness, policy-oriented behaviour) and doing those things right (which involves efficiency, implementation-kinds of behaviour on the part of the organization and its employees). We decided to stay with "overseer."

2. Drucker, Peter, Management.. Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices (New York, Harper and Row, 1974), p. 45.

3. For one definition of the terms "efficiency' and "effectiveness," see "The art of performance measurement," appendix B, Osborne, David, and Gaebler, Ted, Reinventing Government.. How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector (Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, 1992), pp. 351-2.