Whether fulfilling your role as community advocate and arbiter at meetings of local community groups or in the more formal and structured environment of the council chamber, having the skills to do this effectively is essential.
Meetings are a traditional and essential component of local government. For councillors and officers, they serve as a forum for discussion and agreement, planning and monitoring, communication and leadership.
Used appropriately, meetings can challenge, inspire, illuminate and inform.
Committee meetings, in particular, and the procedures for conducting council business that accompany them, are a mainstay of the political management process. Getting the chairing of these meetings right is ever more important.
Unfocused and unproductive meetings only serve to waste the time of those who attend them. Open debate needs a degree of stewardship, to enable all views to be heard and conclusions to be based on reasoned arguments, consensus or compromise. This is the essential role of the chairperson or ‘chair’.
Effective chairing is important because it provides for clear leadership and direction – ensuring that discussions are held within some framework for debate, based on an agreed agenda, and that they adhere to established ground rules, standing orders or protocols for how the business should be conducted.
It also ensures that debates are focused and balanced – involving discussion from all of those who wish to articulate a view, particularly where conflicting viewpoints are being expressed.
It enables decisions to be reached by helping participants to agree on the way forward and any further action that needs to be taken – for example, allocating resources to meet agreed priorities.
It contributes to group or teamworking, allowing people to build rapport and contribute to group/committee discussions. This can often help to inform, unite and inspire people. And it ensures that resources are used to best effect – saving time and energy and allowing information, views and evidence to be gathered in an efficient and timely manner.
The LGA councillor workbook on chairing skills looks at each of the key abilities needed for this role. It examines the key roles of a chair, such as that of the spokesperson providing a summary of other people’s views, and being comfortable to put these across to all kinds of people, including large groups. It also considers: the organisational skills needed for chairing; the key communication elements of the role; the ‘actioning’ role to ensure that meetings are not just a ‘talking shop’ but have a purpose; the need for mediation to seek the necessary compromise between people or conflicting ideas; being fair; and not letting your own feelings get in the way.
It also takes a look at some of the more ‘challenging’ personalities you might come across when chairing meetings and gives an insight into how to ensure they are not allowed to dominate or derail meetings.
Holding the chair
Councillor Alan Connett (Devon) is National Lead Member Peer, LGA Liberal Democrats
And once again said a councillor: “Chair, the last three speakers have said everything I wanted to, but…” as they then repeat what has already been said.
Perhaps we should model the chairing of meetings on the long-running radio comedy ‘Just a Minute’ – inviting councillors to speak without repetition, deviation or hesitation.
Undoubtedly, it helps to have a good measure of self-confidence when chairing a meeting, but chairing is a skill we learn and can improve our own practice by watching others.
For example, learning from others, I began to say who the next three speakers were, so they were ready to speak when called. Also, greeting members of the public or guest speakers in good time before the committee starts, and explaining the process, puts people at ease.
The harder part, of course, is managing members.
The LGA offers chairing skills support and I certainly recommend it. With new chairs almost certainly coming into the role this May, I am sure it would be appreciated.