Over the past 40-odd years, I have attended a vast number of meetings; I’ve no idea how many but a lot. I’ve been motivated to write this blog piece by a fascination with the bizarre ways that some people conduct meetings – particularly when it comes to small voluntary groups. If ever I could claim to have possessed a “transferable skill”, organising meetings and writing minutes would come top of the list; so I think I have a certain amount of authority in the matter.
I gained most of my meeting experience through my job as a project engineer for British Rail from 1974 to 1987. I attended meetings of all sizes, from big project team meetings with perhaps 20 attendees, down to small site meetings involving maybe only 2 people. I wrote minutes for some of these. From 1987 to 2000, my job changed (though with the same organisation) and meetings became less central – I was now more “hands-on” – but they were certainly still a prominent feature.
Overlapping that period, between 1990 and 2003 I attended some rather different meetings as a member of the Labour Party; I had two periods as a ward secretary, and wrote lots of minutes. Then from 2000 onwards I got involved in a plethora of voluntary organisations, some tiny, some bigger, including one international association, and one charitable company.
Now let me describe a typical meeting of a small voluntary group – one in which I play only a background role and thus have not had a chance (yet) to influence
It starts with the Chair “calling the meeting to order” and asking for Apologies for Absence, which the Secretary notes down in the minutes. Next is Minutes of Last Meeting. The Chair asks the meeting if they are an accurate record. This may take some time, as very often, the minutes have only just been circulated – so there may be a few minutes’ silence while everyone reads them.
Next the Chair will announce “Matters Arising”. He or she will usually have gone through the minutes in advance and identified which matters are “arising”, and may also ask the floor whether there are any more. This item may take quite a while, as there are usually updates on ongoing topics and reports from anyone who was tasked to perform some action.
Then we are onto the main agenda. Quite often, one finds that the topics listed on the agenda are more or less the same as at the last meeting, and hence many of these topics will have already been discussed under “Matters Arising”. People are often confused by this; I often wish I had £1 for every time I’ve heard someone ask “are we still on Matters Arising, or are we on the main agenda?”
Included on the agenda may be several “Reports”. These should include a Treasurer’s Report if the organisation in question has funds (and I can’t think of many that don’t) but often there are also “Chair’s Report” and “Secretary’s Report”. These can vary from nothing at all to a blow-by-blow account of what the officer in question has done since the last meeting.
Finally we have “Date of Next Meeting” and “Any Other Business” where anyone present can suggest an additional topic to be discussed.
This kind of procedure, though alarmingly common in small voluntary groups, bears little resemblance to the kind of process I grew up with in my work. Where do these ideas come from? I get the feeling that people believe that “you are supposed to do it this way”, but don’t really know what they are doing, or why. Yet meeting procedures are seldom detailed in organisations’ constitutions. For want of any other name, let’s call what I have outlined above “the standard procedure”
The craziest aspect of the standard procedure is the doubling-up of topics under “Matters Arising” and the main agenda. Of course, organisations vary tremendously in the size and diversity of their workload, and also in the frequency of meetings. I can understand that a group with a fairly light and simple workload, which has infrequent meetings, may be in a position to deal with each issue between one meeting and the next and then “sign it off”; there will then be little overlap between Matters Arising and the main agenda. But most, in my experience, deal with the kind of topics that keep recurring; and even a one-off item may not be completed before the next meeting. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to do what we did on the railways and combine these two sections of the agenda? This is done by treating all matters as “arising”, so that a discussion of the minutes will inevitably cover all “live” issues, and then if there are new ones, they can be discussed after that. Any items that do reach completion are marked as such in the minutes, and then removed at the next meeting; ongoing items are left in the minutes until complete, but updated each time. Some items may not be discussed at all at the current meeting, and if so, they are left as they are in the minutes. The agenda then consists of just 4 or 5 sections: Apologies for Absence, Minutes, [new topics, if any], Date of Next Meeting, AOB.
This kind of minute-taking is what I call “working” or “rolling” minutes. The minutes are an up-to-date summary of the whole project; they are the collective memory of the group. Used properly, this system guarantees that nothing ever gets forgotten.
Another aspect of common meeting (mis)practice that intrigues me is that of not issuing the minutes until just before the next meeting, or even, not until the start of the meeting. This is utterly pointless, and minutes which are treated in that way are themselves pointless, except as a historical record. The purpose of minutes is to make a record of decisions reached at the meeting, and actions arising from those decisions; the Chair then asks for updates from those who are actioned. If the actions are not flagged up until the next meeting, it is quite likely that they will not have been done. OK, people can make their own notes of any actions they have been given, but in my experience a surprising number of people wait for the minutes to come out first – either because they didn’t take notes, or lost their notes, or were a bit confused about what they were supposed to do. Minutes also need to be issued in a timely fashion, of course, to inform anyone unable to attend of what went on.
The delaying of minutes reaches its most extreme form when AGM minutes are not issued until just before the next AGM – in other words, a year later. It is then quite amusing to hear the Chair ask if they are an accurate record – who on earth would be able to remember whether they were or not?
Now, the reader might well object that rolling minutes are all very well for a large engineering project, but needlessly complicated for the church fête organising committee. Well, I can see that some very small, informal bodies might not need them; but for most voluntary bodies they are completely appropriate; it is, on the contrary, the “Matters Arising” format that leads to confusion. And what about those Reports? Does anyone really want to know what the Chair has been up to? Well, it depends on what role the Chair plays, but generally speaking I would maintain that the Chair is not actually a very important role. It is a “traditional” role, and along with the Secretary and Treasurer, is usually classed as a “statutory” post, because it is usually referred to in the constitution, though not always with any duties laid down.
The most important job of the Chair is actually to act as spokesperson between meetings, and the relevance of this will vary tremendously; clearly important for political groups, but much less so for your average voluntary body. Ditto the Secretary, although this post may involve a fair amount of correspondence, which may need reporting to the meeting. But chairing meetings and taking minutes are both jobs that can rotate around a committee. Far more important are the functional officers – such as event organiser, newsletter editor, membership secretary, webmaster etc. If you are going to have Reports that cover items not already in the minutes, all these officers should produce them – but better presented orally than in writing.
Before writing this blog, I thought I ought to do some sort of research into exactly what guidelines there are “out there” regarding how to organise meetings and write minutes, given that constitutions do not contain such detail. Over the years, there is only one book that I have heard of in this context, and until now I had never read it. It is Citrine’s ABC of Chairmanship, published in 1952. But this book deals almost exclusively with political meetings, which are, admittedly, rather different. For a start, there are fewer ongoing issues, and there are likely to be motions or resolutions. There are other differences, which I’ll come to later. And of course things have changed quite a bit since 1952. Citrine speaks of the minutes being written in a “minute book” and read out at the next meeting. At a time when not only was there no email, but even producing multiple copies of a document was pretty difficult, it does make sense for the minutes to not be “issued” at all but simply read out. The problem is that a lot of organisations haven’t kept up with the times – not only do some bodies (such as banks, in forms for opening accounts) still talk about the organisation having “passed the following resolution and entered it into the Minute Book”, but clearly the whole practice of minutes being withheld until the meeting itself – together with the bizarre practice of asking if they are an accurate record, as though minute-writing were a particularly difficult job, or minute-writers prone to inaccuracy – is a relic from those times. However, I can’t say I have ever attended a meeting at which the minutes were actually read out!
Regarding minutes, people often seem to have the mistaken idea that they should contain a complete record of the meeting, right down to “who said what”. This makes for very long, almost unreadable minutes. I am with Citrine on this: he says minutes are “a brief but accurate record of the business transacted”. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, political meetings apart, the names of the attendees should appear in only three places: the attendance list, Apologies for Absence, and the action column. (In political meetings it is usual to record the names of movers and seconders of motions, and sometimes one or more individuals may ask for a particular view to be minuted, even if it does not represent the majority view.)
At the end of the day, organisations should chooose their own format for conducting meetings and registering their results. It is fine to follow the archaic procedures if the group agrees that that is what it wants to do; the worst thing is to adopt a particular format simply because you think that’s what you’re “supposed to do”.