When board chairmen set meeting agendas, they exercise the formidable power to frame and to exclude: Scanning an agenda from top to bottom, what appears near the top of the page gets the most attention, items in the bottom half of the page scream “low priority,” and the empty margins swallow up topics that may feel urgent to certain constituents, but that will receive no board attention at all. Creating the agenda warrants deliberation and reflection, not the slapdash effort of a teenager with a paper due in the morning. Following these steps will make your agenda a meaningful document that conveys your intended priorities.
TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE MEETING
- Read the minutes of the last meeting. From the minutes, the chairman is looking for:
- Items that were tabled at the last meeting. This could be the time to put them on the agenda;
- Items that are somewhere “in process.” Perhaps the board follows a rule that no topic will be discussed and voted on in the same meeting. Items discussed at the last meeting are then ready to move onto the coming agenda for voting; and
- Items that need extended discussion or further information. This agenda should carry them on to the next step.
This first step is essential for accountability. Members lose all confidence – and the board is ineffective – if business at one meeting gets “dropped” or forgotten.
It is important to review the minutes early in the process. By surveying the past minutes two weeks before the meeting, the chair has time to call other board members for clarification or to ask for specific follow-up work to be completed prior to the next meeting.
- Solicit Public Input. Chairs of public boards might invite the public to contribute ideas for the agenda, reserving the right to consider contributions and to exercise their own judgment. A public invitation for input builds community engagement and trust. There are many ways to solicit ideas from a broader constituency:
- Post an invitation on the website of the organization. Include the deadline (one week before the meeting) and the explanation that the invitation for ideas is not a promise of a spot on the agenda.
- Advertise in public spaces. Put posters outside the Town Hall, at the entrance to parks, outside grocery stores or at the front doors of the schools. This form of outreach will be seen by more than the usual suspects. Extending the demographics of participation this way builds community buy-in. It also makes it more likely that you will get fresh ideas from people who may not come to meetings or visit the website.
- Solicit Board Input. Email each board member to ask if they would like to put something on the agenda. In the email, the chair should clarify whether all ideas will be included on the agenda or not. State the deadline.
- Ask for Committee Reports. Often committees of the board meet in the weeks or months between board meetings. The chair should contact the chair of each committee to request a report on the business of that committee, to be submitted one week before the meeting in writing.
EIGHT DAYS BEFORE THE MEETING
A conscientious chairman will post reminders that the deadline for submission of ideas is 24 hours away. The board can get quick emails to that effect. For the public, posting a notice on the website is less arduous than postering the town a second time.
ONE WEEK BEFORE THE MEETING
The chair must now:
- Decide what topics to cover in the meeting. He collects the items he flagged from the minutes as well as the input from the board and the public. Then he considers them in terms of the timing and urgency of the issues. If he has promised to include all ideas from the board, he must rank them in order of importance, deciding which ones appear ahead of others and how much time each will receive at the meeting. He may also find a topic in a committee report to warrant inclusion as an agenda item for discussion and vote by the board as a whole.
- Indicate the action to be taken on each item. Based on the minutes of the last meeting and his own follow-up finding missing information or getting clarification, the chair can confidently indicate which items are up for preliminary discussion, final discussion or final vote.
- Consolidate minutes and committee reports at the top of the agenda. To save time for weighty matters at the meeting, the chair should open the agenda with a single vote on a “consent agenda”: approval of the minutes of the last meeting and all attached committee reports. A single vote on a consent agenda takes less time than a separate vote on each report. Since board members could read the pre-distributed written reports in the days before the meeting, there is no need to waste precious meeting time with an oral delivery of those reports.
- Assemble related documents. At this step, a robust board portal confers superpowers on the chairman. By posting the agenda on the portal, he can easily create links to:
- Documents in the board’s archive that relate to the matter at hand. Example: See policies on security issues in pertinent pieces of legislation [LINK to legislation]
- Because a portal can store historical documents (statutes, policies and laws governing the work of the board), creating the link takes a simple keystroke.
- Minutes of past meetings at which a related topic was discussed. Example: Last February, the board decided to revisit this topic after the election. [LINK to February meeting minutes]
- Media coverage of the topic at hand. A quick internet search generates URLs for news sites covering the topic. Old-fashioned print sources can be scanned in as PDFs. A portal should easily accommodate the embedding of video from on-air news coverage. Example: Vote on next year’s security budget. [LINKS to state 10 o’clock news report on the security budget, to three local newspaper stories on different considerations germane to the security budget and to footage of a protest over insufficient security funding.]
- Creating links to media sources can be even quicker for the board chair generating the agenda. A board member (or a student intern) can be assigned a librarian’s role, regularly updating the website and the board portal with links to related materials from diverse media. Designating such a custodian of the online space bears another benefit: It keeps the portal from becoming a dumping ground of disorganized connections.
- Distribute the agenda with committee reports and other attachments and links. Each board member now has a week to read the materials and plan her remarks in the meeting. If the board chair follows these steps to create the meeting agenda, the meeting should hit peak effectiveness. No meeting time at all will be devoted to background questions, such as: “What are we talking about?” “Didn’t we talk about that before?” “Are we discussing it or voting on it – or both?” “Doesn’t a state law limit our options?” Instead, the chair can lead an informed board through deliberate, thoughtful consideration of the business at hand.