Behavioural issues in meetings: what can we learn?
Today (28 February) we published guidance for councils in England on new approaches to hybrid meetings. This guidance focuses on matters relating to behaviours and attitudes, reflecting on lessons learned during the pandemic and seeking to apply those lessons to a world where hybrid formats may, in due course, form one of the ways in which councils can convene meetings.
(It goes without saying that in Wales, councils already enjoy the right to convene meetings remotely and in hybrid form).
This provokes us to think, again, about the importance of ethical behaviours in and around local democracy. I blogged about this back in November 2020, but fifteen months on we can probably reflect further on the last couple of years, and what they can teach us.
Firstly, council meetings are a performance – as Bryony Rudkin, in a guest blog for us last year, said. For those new to local government, this is an odd and jarring experience. Councillors exchanging barbs across the chamber at full Council may be perfectly convivial once the meeting is over – the spiky political back and forth that you might see in certain meetings is absent elsewhere. There are unspoken rules about how far it is appropriate to “push” certain behaviours – and these rules are different from council to council. Behaviours which some can think are part of the cut and thrust of local politics can strike others as beyond the pale.
It’s fair to say that some of these boundaries have blurred in the past couple of years. Remote meetings brought with them a different dynamic – there’s a different dynamic to hybrid meetings as well. We think that councillors need to sit down and consciously think about how such meetings might operate in the future. Even though we can’t convene meetings remotely at the moment, we hopefully will be able to in the near future – and we need to be ready.
What key factors should we think about in organising remote and hybrid meetings in future? What will the circumstances be where meeting in this way will be appropriate? How will we design novel ways of working to be fully open, democratic and accessible? Most importantly, how will we set clear behavioural expectations for these meetings – and how will we commit to sticking to these expectations?
There’s an argument that says that this conversation about behaviours applies equally to all-physical meetings too. All councils have adopted a Code of Conduct but in how many have councillors sat down and had a proper, meaningful conversation about the way that they engage with each other in formal spaces? No-one likes meetings about meetings – but in this case we should make an exception.
If you’re looking for ideas and pointers our hybrid meetings guidance can be found here. And here you can find something else that might be of use – statutory guidance produced by the Welsh Government to support councils’ powers there to convene meetings remotely. The legislation is very different but the principles are similar, and reading it may spark ideas and conversations.