Setting the Tone: The Power of Agendas to Facilitate Communication in the Public Sector

It’s Monday morning in the public sector. Management and staff pass through security checkpoints; ID badges dangle around employees’ necks. They’re early today because they want to check their schedules and see what the week holds. They arrive at their desks, sit down, and fire up the computer or the smartphone calendar app. They groan when they see what the day holds. Monday is always the worst—jam-packed with mandatory meetings.

“If only I didn’t have to go,” they think. “I could get so much more done if I was at my desk. These meetings are such a waste of time.” But does it really have to be this way? Why do public sector meetings fail?

Human resource experts point to ineffective meeting management as a leading cause of lost productivity. Many identify the lack of a meeting agenda as the number one reason why meetings fail.

The necessity of a clear agenda is hardly a novel idea. Even Robert’s Rules of Order, which date back to the late nineteenth century, recognize that official government meetings need to be guided by an agenda if they’re to be effective. These parliamentary rules, which are commonly applied to decision-making bodies and government committees, presuppose that committees will have an agenda of items up for debate and decision.

The public sector, which answers to taxpayers, has a special obligation to use employee time and resources to maximum effectiveness. Every meeting must have an impact and serve a carefully defined purpose. Writing clear meeting agendas is a vital first step. Six tips to maximize communication among key players and facilitate problem-solving and innovation include:

  1. Choose the right person to prepare the agenda and lead the meeting. This is a politically sensitive area. Just because a senior manager has initiated a meeting doesn’t mean she has to be the one to write the agenda and preside at the meeting. In fact, that might be the worst thing that could happen – if, for example, the purpose of a meeting is to brainstorm, staff might be intimidated about pitching radical or off-the-wall concepts to a high-level manager. The person who’s assigned to write the agenda should be the one who’s most in touch with the specifics of the discussion. It’s wise to have that person facilitate as well.
  1. Clarify the meeting’s purpose. First ask whether a meeting is really necessary, or if an e-mail or a conference call would suffice. If not, consider the meeting’s purpose. If the agenda is too broad, everyone will leave feeling like no progress was made. On the other hand, if the agenda is too narrow, attendees will feel like the discussion didn’t take the big picture into account.
  1. Keep it simple. An overly-ambitious agenda that’s jam-packed with difficult problems and start-up ideas is bound to make everyone feel stressed and competitive.
  1. Invite the right people. The decision about who to invite is agenda-driven. If people who are vital to the discussion and decision-making process aren’t invited, the meeting will waste everyone’s time and a second meeting may become necessary.
  1. Cap each topic with a hard and fast time limit. The meeting facilitator is best suited to determine the length of each agenda topic. If every meeting topic gets adequate airing, then no one will feel overlooked. The most important and time-sensitive items should be placed at the top of the agenda.
  1. Take Minutes. Select a person other than the meeting facilitator to take the meeting’s minutes, and then promptly submit them to everyone (electronically is best) after the meeting. This saves time on the next agenda by eliminating the need for a detailed re-cap of prior discussions.
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