Who Evaluates the CAO? (Part 1)

By George B. Cuff

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To recap this series of articles to date, we have examined the issue of a council evaluating its CAO by first considering the question: Why should a council evaluate the CAO; then addressed the question: What should a council actually evaluate; and, over the course of the last two articles, discussed the following performance indicators: council expectations, corporate performance, relationship to mayor and council, relationship to management and the organization, degree of alignment with council’s goals, profile in the community, the CAO’s goals and finally, the results. (These are all important although this series will conclude speaking to the issue of “What really matters?”) 

We now turn to the matter of: who evaluates the CAO, attempting to look at this from several angles based on questions that have been raised over the years, both through those in attendance at seminars and those who take the time to write. As I perceive the issue at this moment, I believe there are six options, all of which have some degree of merit:

1. a consultant

2. senior management

3. committee of council

4. mayor

5. council

6. combination of the above

The Consultant

If you had asked me earlier in my career whether or not any consultant should be engaged to evaluate the CAO, I would have emphatically replied, “No!” While it would be perceived as self-serving to respond in the affirmative, most folks know that is not how I conduct business. I would have responded “no” because, regardless of how much experience a consultant has in local government, perhaps even as a former administrator, it is not the role of a consultant to venture into any organization and perform a comprehensive evaluation. It is not that a consultant of some standing and experience could not do the job; it is simply that he or she should not. 

A consultant of high reputation may have the moral base to be viewed as independent in doing such an assessment. Such a person or firm may have a sufficient understanding of the intricacies of local government. However, the CAO has not been reporting to the consultant on a week-to-week basis; has not had ongoing dialogue on the local issues; has not been viewed in the “arena of public decision making.” Further, the consultant is retained by council and it is to council that the consultant will file their report. 

If the council or the mayor is very vocal in their opinion of the CAO, the answer in the report may have already been written. The consultant will have checked with each member of council; counted noses; and made an assessment. Unless the role of the consultant is to simply verify council’s distaste for its CAO, the sense that this process will be in any way “value neutral” would be hard to digest. It is not that the consultant is being “bought off” by council; it is simply that the consultant understands that it is council that has the legal authority to make the final decision. Regardless of how well-versed in local government the CAO is, regardless of how well schooled in administrative leadership, regardless of how personable, the CAO still needs to have gained the support of the mayor and councillors. No amount of good research will change that fundamental. So, should a consultant be engaged in the process? I will explore that question at the end of this segment.

Senior Management

Who has the most contact with the CAO on a daily or weekly basis? The senior management team. Who has the greatest understanding of local government management? The senior management team. So, who should evaluate the CAO? Not the senior management team! Senior management team members are usually skilled in their own areas of discipline. They generally do have good managerial skills – some greater, some lesser. They are also candid in their appreciation of what the CAO is expected to do and to whom a CAO reports. While they may agree to participate in a comprehensive review of their boss on a schedule of say every three to five years, as part of a confidential 360°-process, they are wise to stay clear of any annual review process led by council. The potential for a lack of confidentiality is directly proportional to the potential of career “plateauing” or early retirement. Should they have a role? Possibly, but I would suggest in only a very controlled set of circumstances. These people have to work with the CAO on Monday morning after the results of the review are conveyed to the CAO. They want to be supportive and to appear so. They do not want the low cloud of suspicion hanging over their heads as to “who said what?” 

Committee of Council

Some communities have “farmed out” the process to a committee of council. This option is generally considered whenever a municipality has an HR or personnel committee, and it just naturally seems to fit their job description. In such an instance, the committee of three members (out of a seven member council) is charged with determining how the CAO has performed and tasked with bringing a recommendation back to council (some of you can already be heard saying “that’s what we do”). In larger communities (cities or large counties), council may determine that a select committee of council should represent all of council in such a review. (This is based on the notion that the full 13 member council is a bit unwieldy for such a task notwithstanding the fact that the CAO reports to … the full 13.) 

This may work, providing that the committee is balanced (an equal number of non-believers and cheerleaders), or consists of those who seem supportive but still have minds of their own. A committee does not work wherein the input of all of council is not sought (or even considered desirable), and where the “out-group” of councillors is expected to endorse the report of their colleagues without having been asked for an opinion. This is too important an issue to delegate to one’s colleagues and simply be expected to ratify the results.  MW 

Next Month: Part 2 of this segment of council-CAO performance reviews, with a look at turning the responsibility of the review over to the mayor, to the full council, or to a combination of all the options outlined in this part.

GEORGE B. CUFF, FCMC, our governance zone expert, has been involved in local government in one way or another since 1970. He has been a recreation and youth specialist, a department head, a mayor for 12 years, and a consultant/advisor to municipalities since 1976. He is the author of Off the Cuff: A Collection of Writings by George B. Cuff - Volumes 1, 2, and 3 and Making a Difference: Cuff’s Guide for Municipal Leaders, Volumes 1 and 2, published by Municipal World, as well as dozens of magazine articles and columns in Municipal World since 1984.

as published in Municipal World, August 2013





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