Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Municipal Board’s Agenda Management Process

Does your board chair spend too much time preparing for meetings that go nowhere? Two weeks before each meeting, does some conference room get jerry-rigged into an assembly line of documents the board needs to read? At the close of the meeting, do you nevertheless have trouble identifying what got accomplished? Do you repeat the whole process month after month? Following these agenda management tricks can make your meetings far more productive with less legwork.

  1. Make the agenda a procedural road map.

Of course, any agenda lists items in a certain order to guide the meeting. It could, however, also impose a far more useful structure. With each agenda item, you could provide both a clear view of exactly where that item stands in its progression from “new idea” to “approved policy.”

Specifying the action to be taken on each item will eradicate the sense of futility that follows emotional but unproductive meetings. Rather than put on the agenda “discuss police hiring practices,” make crystal clear what will happen as a result of that discussion. Will you propose a new practice to the mayor? Will you respond to a criticism in the newspaper?

Instead of the vague word “discuss,” use process-related language: “Review current police hiring standards to recommend any changes to the committee drafting new contracts. Final vote at next meeting.” If one attendee is a windbag who wants to spend half an hour in the meeting to vent grievances about the police, you can redirect the conversation to “recommend any changes” without being a bully who may appear to be making a personal attack.

  1. Create a virtual agenda and board packets.

Sending out paper board packets limits the volume of reading materials. To keep the weight down, you will include only the most recent and relevant reports for the board to review. As each board member prepares comments to make before the meeting and during the meeting itself, it may become necessary, say, to read the exact language in a state statute. A virtual packet can provide access to all such material.

With the right board portal software, board members can even add personal electronic “post-its” to their copy of the agenda without creating a crumpled mess of papers in the process. The meeting will go more smoothly; clear spaces create clear minds.

  1. Create links to a deep bank of related documents.

Even if you’ve gone paperless, a board member may not know where to find some materials, such as the minutes of last fall’s meeting when the board last discussed the issue. You can, however, create on your board portal an archive containing limitless pages of legislation, spreadsheets, memoranda of understanding (MOUs), maps and other historical documents. In the meeting itself, the group can access documents that become necessary, rather than tabling the discussion pending further research. Some board portal providers charge extra to add more storage space, which adds up fast for voluminous town and county records. Be sure to choose a provider that offers unlimited data expansion free of charge.

  1. Make those documents searchable.

Online background materials set a firm foundation for informed meetings; searchability takes it to the next level. Say you’ve stored 20 years of employment contracts on the portal’s archive. (With role-based authorization, only the board can access these records.) That information becomes useful only if you can conduct a keyword search to target the times that “overtime pay” was mentioned, for instance. Top-of-the-line portal software makes such a search instantaneously. A meta-search penetrates all files in all formats: You need not open each of 240 monthly minutes plus 20 annual budgets to find the few that relate to your quest.

Providing such extensive and searchable records sends a strong statement: “We have nothing to hide.” Journalists will not have to conduct a wild goose chase to “catch” you doing something suspicious. Future researchers will especially thank you.

  1. Facilitate group board editing outside of the meeting.

The two or three hours of a public meeting are easily consumed by paragraph-by-paragraph deliberations over the content, word choice and structure of a group document. Board portal software can make such editing possible – even traceable – on the portal itself. Each member can add comments to a document. Her comments are color-coded and dated. The portal that everybody sees when they log on refreshes in real time with her notes. A designated person can redraft the document in light of all the changes suggested – without the maddening group emails that quickly lose track of “who said what and when.”

  1. Post video of the meeting in the same spot where people go to see the next meeting’s agenda posted.

Who really watches C-SPAN? Only watchdogs bother to find it. The public-facing website provided as part of the board portal, however, makes the board’s own recording of the meeting appear via an icon right next to the minutes of the meeting and the agenda of the next meeting. The portal needs to offer seamless integration of embedded video alongside documents in other formats. The added transparency boosts citizen engagement as nothing else can. (Future historians will also thank you. Imagine being a fly on the wall at the drafting of the Declaration of Independence or the Nicene Creed!)

Taking these steps to streamline your agenda management process gives your board the tools it needs to do great things. Meetings can now focus on the business at hand — and not on cumbersome mechanics. Discussion leads to actions, and the board is fully informed. You won’t miss the frustration and futility.


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