Friday, 6 November 2015

Parts of the Job Part 1 - Decision-making meetings (Nominate 2016)

Part of the series Nominate 2016, hoping to open up local government a bit so y'all will at least think about running in 2016.  

There are many parts to the role of an elected member in local government in Aotearoa New Zealand, and I hope to get through the ones I consider most important over time.  First up I'm going to focus on what is sometimes referred to as "the shop front" - decision-making meetings.

Skills you need to be effective:
As you read through this list don't be put off.  You will likely already do a lot of this in other contexts (I'll suggest some in brackets) and if not then with commitment and application you can learn much of it.  These aren't ranked numerically, the numbers are more for discussion reference if you want me or others to expand on that point.

  1. Listening (bet you do that lots already)
  2. Reading (you're doing that now!)
  3. Analysing and thinking critically (the best analogy I have come up with is spotting plot holes.  If you are the kind of person who notices them, and is at least a bit irked, then you can probably do this already)
  4. Asking good questions, and good follow-up questions (what a good question is will depend a bit on context - but in this case I'm talking about asking questions to enlighten you and others in the room, not to score points, but to progress the discussion.  You will likely already do this a lot in low level conflict resolution, eg with family members: "I heard you say you don't like it when I fart in bed, does that mean you also don't like it when I burp in bed?"  "Hmmm, what about if I did it silently?")
  5. Controlling your own reactions (Not to the point of being a mask, but enough that you don't butt in or derail things.  Just like any family gathering really, or parenting, or probably some of the meetings you go to in other contexts)
  6. Actually wanting to do this, or at least being able to pretend that you want to (people can tell really easily if you don't want to be there and that's not really good enough for democracy imho, see also Fairey's Theory of Awesomeness.  You don't have to love every minute but you need to be into it enough to do it properly)
  7. Verbally articulate your views honestly, clearly, succintly (another one you do a lot in writing already especially if you spend much time on Twitter, a five minute opportunity to state your opinion seems excessive after 140 characters!  And this is something you can learn to get better at too, starting with writing up what you want to say, practicising [which I do in the car and the shower often].  To start with it is enough to be able to say, before the actual vote, "I will be voting this way because X" and you can totally do that.)
  8. Debate, somewhat.  (This is the scariest one for most people, but the reality of standing orders [the rules for the meetings] is that the kind of cut and thrust back and forth debate people imagine is actually quite rare.  Usually it is more a case of putting forward your views [as in 7] and then others may put forward opposing ones, and then sometimes you get a chance to reply [which is like updating your 7] but often you don't during the meeting itself.  A lot of debate happens through other forums which is both a plus [allows for less formality, more reconsideration of positions, time to come back to it after thinking and getting more information] and a minus [not always transparent to the public as it ought to be])
  9. Vote.  (Either raising your voice to say a single word at the appropriate moment, or indicating by hand or on a ballot - you do that for reality TV, you do that for the general election, you have totally got this one already).
There are other skills I could mention too that make the work at decision-making meetings effective away from that table, but I'll cover those elsewhere in the series.  

Names for decision-making meetings:

  • Business meetings
  • Public meetings (not to be confused with actual public meetings, ie meetings called by someone / some group to discuss X and not usually empowered to make formal decisions)
  • Board meetings (eg Community Board, Local Board, District Health Board, Board of Trustees)
  • Council meetings
  • Committee meetings (eg Auckland Development Committee, Funding Grants Committee)
  • Monthly meetings (although some bodies meet more or less frequently so might call them something else that reflects time frame)
  • Committee of the Whole (aka COWs, yes COWs - usually a committee that includes all the elected members of an authority, not a subset)
  • Governing Body meeting

Don't let the plethora of names put you off.  In Local Government these meetings generally follow similar formats even if they have different names, and some of them will be the exact same meeting referred to slightly differently by different people, eg all of the above bullet points could be used to describe the Puketapapa Local Board decision-making meetings, except for the last one.  

Time commitment:
This varies greatly from body to body.  It is the key thing you need to be able to commit to doing most if not all of the time, so you need to suss it out carefully.  For the Board I'm on we usually meet one evening per month for up to four hours.  Occasionally we have gone longer, usually we go between three and four hours. 

I advise checking out some of the minutes from the body you are considering running for to get a sense of how often they meet and how long the meetings go for.  Going to these is absolutely crucial; you are a human being, so don't think you have to be at every minute of every one, but going in you should be looking to try, and to either actively want to or be prepared to.  More about my views on how politicians aren't robots when it comes to decision-making meetings here (2011 post).

Format and culture of the meetings:
Again this will vary.  My observations to date (almost exclusively in Auckland) have been that they are reasonably formal, ie there will be someone chairing and they will have a set of rules they run the meeting by (sometimes needing to check with staff for what is and isn't in the rules), often people will not use first names or use titles (Member Smith, Councillor Henare, Your Worship), there will be a place for the decision-makers and their staff and another place for everyone else, those kinds of things.  Most other parts of the role run less formally, some much less formally, than this bit.  

The culture is set by the group, and led by the person chairing to a certain extent.  These are things you can work on consciously away from the meetings themselves too, so how you start doesn't have to be how things always are.  And how they are now, if you go watch one (which is a good idea) isn't necessarily how they might be with different people at the table.  You'd be surprised how much even changing one or two people can change things.  

The format of the meetings is laid out in the standing orders (rules) for that body.  Items covered will include (not necessarily in this order but often):
  • Welcome - sometimes a prayer or message to start the meeting, sometimes just literally "welcome"
  • Introductions - usually part of the welcome, letting those watching know who is at the decision-making table very briefly by name and role
  • Apologies - who isn't there and why - this is usually voted on for accepting or not (and usually accepted)
  • Minutes of previous meeting - in some bodies this will involve scrutinising the past minutes to find any errors, but in local government that is done away from the table before the meeting, so this is usually v quickly accepted too
  • Public input - there are a number of formats for this:
    • Petitions - actual presentation of an actual petition, with signatures and stuff
    • Deputations - longish presentation allowed, followed by questions and sometimes discussion
    • Public forum - short presentation allowed, followed by questions and sometimes discussion
  • Elected member reports - there are lots of different approaches to doing this, some bodies don't do them at all, others do written ones, some allow resolutions (decisions to be voted on), many are verbal updates.  In another post I'll write about how I do it, and other stuff I've seen, as I see this as an important part of the democratic part of the role, but be aware YMMV greatly.
  • Notices of Motion - these are motions (resolutions) that have come directly from elected members and are usually to get a decision on a political matter.  Notices of Motion I have done included seeking a Board position on the Sky City Convention Centre deal, Living Wage and strongly supporting local board input to resource consenting.  Lots of people don't seem to use these much.
  • Agenda reports - these are written by staff (council officers) who are subject matter experts and generally give information and advice and then state recommendations (proposed resolutions/motions) for the decision-makers to debate, change and vote on.  This will form the bulk of the meeting items.  Some items will come up every month (eg we get a montly report from Auckland Transport), others on a regular cycle (six monthly update from Panuku Development Auckland, annual parks renewals work programme), and some in response to earlier resolutions asking for that report so you can then make some formal decisions on a matter.  Check out some agendas to get an idea - sometimes the longest reports actually have the short decisions as they will be providing a lot of background information or updates that don't require political input.  You get good at working out what you do and don't need to read closely.
  • Administrative items - these will vary from body to body, but may include accepting workshop records (who was there, topics discussed), noting when the next meeting will be, passing the progress of the list of resolutions or action items from past meetings.
  • Confidential items - these will usually be at the end of a meeting (for practicality) and may involve commercial sensitivity but most commonly so far in my experience they have been about giving input on things that can't be discussed publicly yet (because the price would go up, or someone might demolish a building, or there is a legal issue).  This is sometimes referred to as "in committee".
For more information on how these can work the body involved will have past minutes and agendas up online.  For example the Auckland Council ones are here (don't be dismayed if things take a while to load, that's not unusual!).

Decision-making meetings are the shop front of the job, not the only important part but definitely one of the most important parts.  You need to be committed to doing them.  Pretty much all the skills you will need to start with are transferable, ie you probably already have them in other parts of your life, eg parenting, other paid work, voluntary commitments.  Don't be scared of this bit, you can do it!

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