Survival Tips to Good Governance

With the federal election campaign roughly beyond the halfway mark, politics and politicians — what they say, how they behave and who might get and not get elected — are on the minds of many Canadians. 


For those running for office, getting elected is only half the battle.  The other shoe to drop is stepping into the role and doing the work.

Today’s climate for individuals serving the public as an elected official is a challenging one.  The majority of people who run for local government for example, are generally ordinary citizens elected to do extraordinary work.  While they come from a diversity of backgrounds, they tend to share a common ideal — to serve their community with vision and commitment.  But the demands and expectations of public office are often complex, unrelenting and sometimes difficult to fulfill.

At the end of my first term as a Council member, I prepared the following “survival tips” for good governance, lessons I learned while serving my community.  Although these tips focus on local government, making the transition from private to public life is not a “cake walk” no matter what level of government is involved — if you are not well prepared and willing to learn, there are big potholes ahead that can cause you to trip and fall.  Steep learning curves can be survived and can build new skills and confidence, as this quote suggests — “Take risks.  If you win you will be happy; if you lose you will be wise.”

The following was first published on my blog many years ago and I was recently asked to publish it again.  For those of you currently running for office, who are thinking about it for the future or who currently serve, I hope you find these quick tips useful:

  • Find a support group. In addition to the support of family, friends and colleagues, once elected, it is important to stay connected to your community and to people who share common values, beliefs and commitments to community well being and good local government.
  • Listen more, talk less and do your homework.  A lot of politicians tend to do a lot of talking but learning to listen and hear are truly art forms and valuable lessons.  Listen to your community, to staff, to people on the street, to wise and experienced mentors, to Council colleagues and to your instincts (that sixth sense).  Read everything that you can get your hands on and do your homework.  If you are badly informed, chances are your decisions will be too.
  • Breathe and count to 10.  Participating in politics and elected office are not for the faint of heart, especially when navigating choppy water.  An unpopular decision, issue or position can generate a lot of passion and emotion in the community, on Council or, sometimes, with municipal staff.   Remember to breathe and count to 10 before leaping into a debate.  Emotions can run high when there’s a lot at stake so take the time to reflect before you speak or act.
  • Compromise and check your ego at the Council Chamber door.   Learn to give and take and try to remain flexible and willing to bend. Local government is technically a coalition of differences.  Learn to work with these differences, to compromise and to conciliate, remembering that you are there to represent your community (its future and its best interests) and not for yourself.  Trying to find solutions that benefit citizens is more important than trying to impress or win to benefit yourself.
  • Show leadership, take risks and muster courage.  Demonstrating leadership and courage builds strength and compassion.  Don’t be afraid to tackle tough issues and make hard decisions.  Don’t just “go along to get along.”  If you believe in something enough and you know that your community might be a better place because of it, then step out, take a risk and move forward with conviction.
  • Be authentic.  The public is a harsh critic and can see through someone who is disingenuous so be yourself.
  • Make a decision and move on.   In the game of bridge, the post-mortem is a necessary element to understanding the “win/lose” scenario.  But decision-making is not like playing a hand of bridge; if your decision is based on evidence, research and homework, the best advice is to make the decision and move on.  Resist the temptation to second guess yourself because if you believe that you were well informed, balanced and made the right decision at the time, you most likely did.
  • Learn to say “no.”  Learning to say “no” and protecting one’s private life outside the job might be the most important lesson of all.  Balancing personal and family needs with political demands and expectations is fundamental to maintaining good health.  Get and keep a life outside the job and set personal boundaries and priorities to ensure that personal and family needs are not left behind.