Attending, conducting or organizing the meetings are some of the functions, which a civil servant has to perform almost daily. One of the most important elements of public administration, meetings are held for multifarious purposes i.e. from disseminating information about new policy, holding discussion to sort out an issue, making a decision of follow up the decisions taken earlier etc., follow up. Art as well a science, well-conducted meeting is an efficient and effective way of doing business. Consequently utmost care should be taken to make these meetings as constructive and fruitful as possible for which the following guidelines can be useful.
1. To Hold or Not to Hold a Meeting:
Before holding a meeting you must be very clear whether there is a need for holding it or we can achieve the same objectives through other means. Rule of thumb as well as prudence demand not to hold meeting if not absolutely necessary. Efforts should be made to use other methods to achieve the same objectives. Some of these alternatives could be telephones, emails, letters etc. Another method which is becoming very popular is holding of teleconferences because of its convenience, economy and saving of time.
2.Date and Time:
Once it has been decided to hold a meeting then it is utmost necessary to choose a date and time which is convenient to the participants who should be informed well in time, in writing and confirmed by phone after one/two days of sending of notice of meeting. Give prospective attendees plenty of information to ready them for the discussion. Ideally seven days should be given for this purpose to have meaningful participation.
Monday should be avoided as it is the start of the week and senior management is busy to give directions for the upcoming tasks to be accomplished during the coming week. On the other hand Friday, particularly afternoon is the worst date and time to select for obvious reasons.
In case of monthly meetings it would be ideal to choose a fixed date, in consultation with the regular participants so that they so should adjust their work schedule accordingly. Only the change, if any, is intimated to the participants well in time.
Beside the date and time, selection of suitable place for holding of meeting is also necessary. Normally meetings are held in the committee rooms of the ministries and departments about which participants are normally familiar. However if it has been decided to hold the meeting in an hotel/hall, participants should be informed by highlighting the venue in the notice of meeting. Staff officers must ensure that the seating arrangements are adequate and the lights/ gadgetry are in working order at the place selected for holding the meeting.
One of the most crucial decisions is the preparation of a comprehensive working paper, its timely circulation and issuing notice of the meeting. Ill prepared working papers, which do not cover the background of the case, list down the options available with merits and demerits of each option clearly delineated, invariably result in faulty decisions.
Similarly while issuing the agenda, it should be clearly mentioned why the meeting is being held and more importantly what exactly will be the topic of discussion and nature of decision to be taken. For example simply intimating that a meeting will be held on such date and time at such place to discuss the issue of food security in Pakistan is not enough. The notice should indicate that the participants will discuss and decide whether the proposal of ministry xyz to increase the subsidy on fertilizers by 10 percent should be accepted or not.
Needless to reiterate, a telephone call to every participant about the receipt of agenda after it has been dispatched would go a long way in ensuring a healthy and fruitful participation
Appropriate level of participation in a meeting is very important to have a meaningful discussion and decision-making. Depending upon the importance and urgency of the topic of discussion, the host ministry decides the officer who will chair the meeting, which will determine the level of participation from the invited ministries. However if some decision is to be taken, then the ministries being invited must be informed to send an officer who has the authority to take a decision in that particular case or he has been authorized to commit on behalf of the competent authority. For other meetings lower level participation can be accepted
6. Meeting Day:
On the day of the meeting, clear directions towards venue of the meeting should be displayed at the place of main entry to the building. Senior officers must depute staff officer to extend formal reception if senior executives are expected. Seating plan should be prepared in advance in accordance with the seniority of the participants and name plates, slightly slanted towards the chair, should be placed on the meeting table in front of the respective attendees for ease of all. Check the speaker system once in the morning and second time just before the start of the meeting. Ensure that some spare copies of working papers are available as someone might have forgotten to bring along the working paper you sent with the notice. No unnecessary staff should be loitering in the meeting room which must have an ambience and environment congenial for holding the meeting. There should be a waiting room for accompanying staff of the attendees. Refreshments should be available in one corner of the conference room, not served during the meeting by the waiters.
7. Conducting Meeting:
- Make sure that the meeting starts in time for which you must arrive in time. Nothing annoys the participants the most is the late arrival of the chairperson of the meeting. Everyone has come to your office/meeting and deserves the best treatment which includes timely start and finish of the meeting.
- After warmly greeting the participants, thank them for making it convenient to attend the meeting. Apologize if there has been any delay or any other mishap relating to the conduct of the meeting but never blame any of your colleagues or subordinates for the above in front of others. Take it upon yourself during the meeting but thrash the delinquent officer for this in the privacy of your office.
- Hopefully your staff officers had already given you the speaking points about the agenda, procedure of the meeting and other necessary information a day before the meeting. Do read them before coming to the meeting and make up your mind what to say and how to say them. These introductory remarks ,which should be brief and to the point, are very crucial as they set the tone of the meeting besides giving broad outlines, direction and limits to the participants, helping everyone to take meaningful participation in the meeting.
- Make sure that despite variation of the views and divergence of opinions, all your attendees are absolutely clear about the objectives and the deliverables of the meeting and all work toward the same goal. Write down the discussion focus at the top of the whiteboard so you can simply point to it when correcting a digression
- You owe it to the participants to finish the meeting within the stipulated time for which you will have to be very proactive. Some participants may try to derail a discussion by constantly dragging it back to their own agendas. Your job is to keep the focus on the goals and objectives of the meeting. You have to own the conversation or these people may push you aside and take it towards irrelevant direction. Constantly remind everyone in case they stray from the main agenda
- A meeting without passionate argumentation is a lackluster spectacle. Let the emotions play their role but try to keep them under control. When a flare up happens, let it happen, at least for a bit. Let your participants express enough without overusing the time required to complete your task. However make sure that they acknowledge the issue and remain focused on the need to meet objectives and deliverables within time constraints.
- In order to have expansive and in-depth discussions, encourage everyone for free discussion. Ask questions from silent participants if you see that some people are dominating the proceedings while others hang back. Bring everyone’s ideas to the forefront so all can be heard. Don’t be afraid to politely cut someone off if they are spoiling the conversation. Let them think you are a little rude, but the other people at the session will appreciate you maintaining the pace and decorum of the meeting.
- Capacity building of the junior officers, whether serving under you or not, is your responsibility. If you see a junior officer attending the meeting ,give him extra attention and solicit his view by asking him specifically. However do not ridicule him if his views are not up to the mark.
- If you have a subtle sense of humor, do show it during the meeting as it keeps the proceedings lively. But do not try to be overtly humorous if God has not been kind to you in this respect. Cracking indecent, political or personal remarks are strictly out of question.
- Building consensus on controversial issues is the height of management skill of a civil servant but do not compromise on fundamentals in pursuit of this feat. Solicit the opinion of the participants by asking everyone to jot down his views/ ideas on paper. Go for voting if there are marked differences of opinion but views of dissenters must be recorded in the minute
- Addressing participants by name is an extremely effective way of ensuring maximum participation. And never snub a person even if he or she has stated something which was either factually incorrect or not in its proper context. Politely make him aware of the anomaly of his argument or better still, just ignore it and seek the opinion of other participants.
- End of the meeting should be as warm as its start hopefully was. Acknowledge the participation and patience of each participant and do mention the ones who had contributed the most during the deliberation. Shake hands with each one of them and join them in the refreshments if these have been arranged at the end of the meeting
Depute two officers, one fairly senior and another one, a junior officer to record the minutes of the meetings. Besides ensuring accuracy of the minutes recorded, it will help building the managerial capacity of the junior officer. Draft minutes must be on your table within 24 hours and you should mot take more than a day to clear them and getting them approved from the competent authority before circulation among the participants. Minutes must follow a proper format having four parts. Part one should indicate the date, time venue, purpose and names of the participants. Part two should contain brief account of the issues discussed and their background. Part three will deal with the gist of discussion which took place and views of the participants which should be reflected by name except in case of minutes of a cabinet meeting where principle of collective responsibility forbids it. Part four should contain the decisions taken during the meeting, persons/agencies made responsible for their implementation and the timelines agreed to. Once approved by the competent authority these minutes should be then circulated within two working days among those who participated in the meeting with the request for acknowledgement of their receipt by a specific date/time.
Follow up of the decisions taken during the meeting is as important as the meeting itself. After the circulation of the minutes of the meeting, if no response has been received from the person made responsible to accomplish a task given during the meeting, send him/her the first reminder in writing, followed by a telephone call by your staff officer a few days later. If still no response is forthcoming within the next week, send him a written reminder under your own signature and follow it up with a telephone call. Non response after three week is unacceptable. Send a Demi Official (DO) letter to his boss and also a telephone call to his immediate senior will be in order
While well conducted meetings are extremely useful in achieving objectives, haphazard meetings are just wastage of time and resources. Badly conducted meetings lead to more badly held meeting and vice versa. Every meeting should be a learning experience for your juniors