Yes, you’re allowed to change your public meetings (and this is why you probably need to)

Is your organization required to hold meetings in a public forum? Is your board or commission frustrated and exhausted by your meetings? Here's how you can improve your experience conducting public meetings.

March 5, 2024

I’ve been binge-watching The Bear. It’s that series about a young chef who leaves the world of fine dining to run his family’s sandwich shop in Chicago. It’s gritty, heartbreaking and frequently profane.

Amid the chaos, Carmen tries to impose order in the kitchen by adopting the French Brigade. Invented by Auguste Escoffier, it’s a traditional system for maintaining order and discipline among kitchen staff. As the name suggests, it uses a strict militaristic hierarchy to get things done in the kitchen.

It sounds like a terrible way to run a sandwich shop, but it instils respect and discipline in his team. Ah, the magic of television!

In real life, our clients struggle with precisely the opposite problem. We often work with public committees, commissions and councils that follow their own version of the French Brigade. They hold heavily scrutinized meetings in public view. Packed agendas are tightly scripted. There are strict rules for how the meetings are conducted.

You’d think meetings would be the least of their problems. Yet, when we run workshops for these groups, we frequently hear about how frustrating and exhausting they find their meetings to be. The participants feel stifled or rushed by the rules or that the real issues never get addressed.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably a sign that your formal meetings need a tune-up

But do we have permission to change public meetings?  They say you can’t change city hall. But during the pandemic, Calgary City Council changed its meeting rules to allow the public to present by phone at public hearings.

It seems minor, but this practice, considered unthinkable before COVID-19, is still in place today. Citizens can participate in public hearings because they don’t have to sit in Council chambers all day, frustrated as they wait to speak. 

Trust me, it’s a big deal. If Calgary City Council can change its meetings, you can too.

If you’ve followed a set of formal practices for a long time, it’s easy to assume they can’t change. It may be true for some things, but a closer look at your meeting rules will probably reveal all sorts of cruft that your organization can quickly reduce or eliminate.

Remember–even priests get to change how they conduct Mass.

But the rules say… There are bound to be some rules you simply can’t change, maybe because they’re legislated requirements, or there are aspects of tradition that simply can’t be ignored. So, if you can’t change the main event, what about changing how and when you meet “around the edges?”

We’ve seen clients introduce breakfast meetings before public hearings so that members can ask clarifying questions and identify root issues before raising potentially damning concerns on the public record. Others have adopted annual or semi-annual planning workshops to hold free-ranging discussions about broader topics of concern. 

Then, of course, there are sub-committees. Sub-committees are often overlooked as a way to conduct essential discussions in a less formal forum. If well-designed and well-run, sub-committees can help make the main events more efficient and sustainable. 

How do we start? You and your colleagues probably know what needs to change, but you haven’t had a chance to talk about it. Start by having an off-record discussion about what is and isn’t working in your version of the French Brigade. If there’s tension in the group, skilled, neutral facilitation will keep the focus on process rather than people issues.

Next, research and determine what you can and can’t change. Even if your organization is subject to legislation, you’ll probably be surprised to discover that you can still make changes. But if the rules are a real obstacle to change, look at ways to meet “around the edges” of your legislated meeting requirements.

Making change: Now you’re ready to discuss what to change. 

Be bold but not overly ambitious. We’re often surprised how some of our clients introduce small things that make a huge difference. Consent agenda items are a great example. 

If you keep changes small, there’s room to pilot new practices and dispense with them if they don’t work. If anything feels complicated, it probably is, and that’s bad. Eliminate complexity whenever possible.

And remember, the goal isn’t about holding flawless meetings. It’s about helping your colleagues make the best decisions possible while meeting in the public eye. 

Written by
Dave Robertson

Dave is a Certified Professional Facilitator and conflict resolution specialist with over fifteen years experience. He helps groups struggling with complex problems and fragile relationships.

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Parsons Dialogue is based in Calgary, Canada, serving clients across North America. We design and facilitate strategic processes that help teams collaborate with clarity and confidence.

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