Deciding by committee

Recent scenes in North Africa ought to make me very grateful that I live in an established democratic country.  Democracy in practice, however, tends to rely on an awful lot of committees.  And a lot of awful committees.  I sat in a team meeting yesterday afternoon which on one hand, covered a lot of relevant issues to our staff group.  On the other hand, I didn’t feel very much was actually decided or changed.  While there is value in sharing information and agreeing current difficulties, the hierarchies within higher education mean that a lot of decisions are actually outside the control of academic staff.

We did discuss the issues which had been raised at the recent Staff Student Consultative Committee, and other items have been forwarded to other more senior committees, including our repeated request for more staff hours.  Another committee has decided not to pursue at least one of the plagiarism concerns I put forward, and actually passed the assignment.  I’m not sure if this gives a stronger message to the student than another assignment which I failed for borderline plagiarism concerns.

As I end my employment with Welcome, the churches project working with refugees and people seeking sanctuary, I have been invited to join their committee.  Another friend approached me about joining another local management committee as well.  I haven’t decided yet – while both the organisations deserve my support, I am unsure if joining a committee is the best way to contribute.  I sat on the executive committee for a professional association for several years and always dreaded our quarterly day-long meetings.

Being invited to help steer an organisation sounds like an important and dynamic responsibility.  Why then does it often feel so tedious and bureaucratic process?  Too many meetings hash over the same tired agenda or problems which can’t be resolved.  Part of the ordeal in some cases are the other personalities who seem to enjoy being on committees or who always get roped into these things.  I wonder if part of the problem is a lack of clear purpose or direction.  Some committee meetings seem full of jobs and tasks which need to be shared and which everyone wants to avoid.

On one level, a committee is simply a group of people working together.  The alternative of balloting a large group of involved people doesn’t always make better decisions – I’m uncertain what to do about the upcoming strike at my place of work.  I’m not a member of the union yet and the day they have chosen is one where I am being paid hourly as a visiting lecturer.  Or won’t be paid.  The union organisers seem very charismatic people – just the types you might like to have on a committee to shake things up a bit.  Properly committing to a committee maybe means being willing to do that – I don’t just want to join to sit in the corner and make up numbers.

If the whole dynamic of the committee needs to change, to make it more worthwhile and effective for everyone, I guess it needs to be one of the members who suggests this.  If the organisation needs a clearer purpose and vision, this also sounds like the responsibility of a committee.  This might require longer meetings, or more commitment between meetings.  It might require new agenda items, more difficult discussions and it might cause long-standing members to reconsider their roles or even leave.  It sounds like a lot of work.  I’m still thinking about it.

Post script – One of the WordPress Freshly Pressed blog posts today gives 10 Ways to Avoid Death By Meeting.  Plenty of helpful suggestions there…

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