The bored room: why do public servants torment each other with endless meetings?
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The bored room: why do public servants torment each other with endless meetings?

Curing this disease would be the biggest efficiency dividend of all.

I call it the public service disease, and I notice it everywhere in this city.

The context seems irrelevant. It happens mostly in offices but also in schools, sports groups and community organisations. Whenever a group of people meet for a reason other than to socialise, the meeting ... well, it just keeps on going.

It's the conduct of meetings, rather than the sheer number of them, that riles public servants most.

It's the conduct of meetings, rather than the sheer number of them, that riles public servants most.

It doesn't matter whether it was meant to last only 10 minutes. It will begin with the obligatory "let's go around the table and tell everyone a bit about who we are and what we do". Ten minutes will pass, and we'll be a third of the way through. The reason for getting together in the first place will be long since lost.

Canberra means "meeting place" (according to one version of the word's roots, anyway). But we do a woeful job of it. When a friend returned recently from overseas to her public service job, she expressed horror at the routine she had been made to resume. "I'm in meetings all day. It's driving me insane. There's rarely any need for them, yet no one questions why we have them."

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So I asked around – among friends and more broadly – to find out whether APS culture is as broken as it seemed. It's worse.

Most mid-level bureaucrats tell me they routinely spend two to four hours a day in meetings. Executive level 2 and more senior officers spend significantly more time; they're forced to do their own work outside regular hours. Almost everyone indicated there was little attempt at efficiency.

Bizarrely, given the amount of time involved, none of the public servants I asked had been trained in how to run a meeting.

It's not that meetings are unnecessary. After all, the work of government is largely collecting, analysing and/or sharing information. And very few bureaucrats work on their projects alone; sometimes, meetings are the ideal way for team members to communicate.

"I think the better question is ... how many hours are spent on corporate meetings," one Canberra public servant wrote to me. "I worked in a unit that did seven hours of meetings a week telling each other what we were doing.

"Some of it is micromanagement. Others are hard-wired, chain-of-command communication. A lot aren't about decision-making – which is worse. Add staffing catch-ups and you've lost a day asking people how they are going."

The gripes are manifold. Some blame managers who either lack confidence in their staff or who need the repeated assurance of activity. Others blame habit; a lack of imagination or interest in tackling work differently to the way it's always been done. "The section always meets on Monday from 9.30am to 11.30am." "The branch always has morning tea and cake on Tuesday."

But it's the conduct of meetings, rather than the sheer number of them, that riles people most. An effective meeting will involve as few people as are needed to share the information necessary to make an informed decision. Instead, too many meetings in Canberra involve entire teams and last far too long. Many lack an obvious goal.

Consultation paranoia sees too many managers seek everyone's ideas about where to put the office plants.

I have two theories about this. The first relates to the modern sensitivity to the "need to consult". Consulting relevant people is, of course, commonsensical. Yet public servants tend to go a step further: they try to reach (or at least be seen to be trying to reach) a consensus on all decisions, even small ones. Hence, a meeting's default aim becomes to "hear from everyone" rather than to make and/or communicate a decision.

Yet greater participation is not inherently "good", nor is a lack of involvement a sign of disengagement. At a society-wide level, democratic theorists realise that increased participation in politics is often a sign of frustration. The people in a well-governed society may seem apathetic – they might not vote or attend public meetings – but that may be because they are content with the decisions being made on their behalf.

The same principle holds true in smaller teams. The good manager, like the good political leader, is trusted by her team to decide what's best. Yet consultation paranoia sees too many managers seek everyone's ideas about where to put the office plants.

A senior executive who worked recently in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet tells me that meetings took up, on average, four to six hours of his working day. But he says senior officers in line departments, who tended to have more staff, spent even more time in meetings.

"You're entirely right that this is a result of needing to 'be heard' or, as we say, 'consult'. You were dead meat had you not consulted anyone of any relevance about an issue – and they'd often use this as a means to subvert you more broadly. So you always consulted."

The SES officer loathed meetings and tried to do them by phone "to cut the bullshit". But the reasons for the time-wasting aren't limited to dithering and unnecessary consultation; he says meetings are often used as displays of power in the public service's endless turf wars.

"If meetings involve multiple agencies, you can bet that Finance or Health, or one of the muscular agencies, will want to put on a show and carry on, if only to report back to their deputy. It's a sport and a waste of time," he says.

"I found bilateral meetings by phone much more efficient and could usually be done in 20 minutes because the theatre was removed.

"The point perhaps you have missed is preparation for the meetings. Every meeting with another agency involves an official writing a researched briefing note and briefing his/her principal. I estimate this at 1:3 [time spent meeting versus time spent preparing]. For intergovernmental meetings, the kings of meeting time-wasting, the ratio is probably closer to 1:20."

My second theory about why APS meetings are atrociously inefficient, at least anecdotally, relates to how public servants' time is valued (or rather, how it isn't valued). The government's workplace bargaining policy highlights this perfectly. It insists that any pay rises be offset by "genuine productivity gains". Now, Informant columnist Paddy Gourley has explained many times why it's absurd to try to measure productivity in most public service workplaces. Nonetheless, the Public Service Commission has ploughed on, approving "productivity gains" that, in most cases, involve public servants working longer hours – the precise opposite of a productivity gain.

In other words, the government's official measure of a public servant's value is how long they spend in the office. For the commission and everyone else involved in setting APS pay, time wasted in a meeting is time well spent.

So it's probably fair to call it the public service disease. Purging this infection would pay a far bigger efficiency dividend than any round of retrenchments could.

Of course, bad meetings infect other workplaces, too. Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor who founded the Better Work Institute, published survey findings on the topic last year. She said two in three senior managers in a range of industries felt meetings kept them from completing their own work, and seven in 10 described meetings as unproductive and inefficient. The difference is that parts of the private sector have been studying this problem keenly for years to try to alleviate it.

I'll leave you with a message of hope. A few years ago, American management consultant Michael Mankins recounted how a new US Defence Department undersecretary single-handedly tipped on its head that organisation's notion of how to run a meeting:

She came to her first meeting with contractors and saw some 60 people in the room. So she said: "Let's first create a big circle. We'll go around the room, and everyone can say who they are and why they're here." Participants rolled their eyes – did they really have to do something this gimmicky? – but did as she asked.

After the first two had identified themselves, the undersecretary said: "Thanks for your interest, but we won't need you here. You can excuse yourself." Others met a similar fate. By the time she got to the 10th person in the circle, people all over the room were getting up to leave, knowing they had no real reason to be there. Eventually, the group got down to around 12 members – and the human capital productivity of that meeting rose about fivefold.

If you run meetings in your workplace, take a moment to think about what you're about to inflict on others. Do they really deserve it? Do you?

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant. Twitter: @MarkusMannheim

Doing it right

Tony Pan is an executive and management trainer at McMillan Staff Development, one of few organisations that teaches public servants how to run an effective meeting. He agrees that poorly run meetings are rife in Canberra.

"There are too many instances where you hear about people spending 1½ or two hours in a meeting, then walking away and saying 'I don't know what the outcome of that meeting was, or what it was for'," Pan says.

"And that creates an expectation that the next meeting will be ineffective as well."

He offers four tips to chair a meeting effectively:

1. Prepare. Do you need to meet?

"Work out a clear objective. It should be just one objective, not four or five you want to achieve," Pan says.

Then ask yourself: what's the best way to achieve this? Is it a face-to-face meeting, or will an email or online chat be more effective? Who really needs to attend?

Pan says some meetings are held purely out of habit. "Maybe it's because, five or 10 years ago, it was decided that this weekly meeting was the best way to deal with this issue. But the world's changed since then."

2. Open with discipline

If you said you would start at 10am, don't be late. Open by telling people why they're there.

Pan says: "Be very clear what the purpose is right off the bat. Say, for example: 'We're here to come up with three or four actions to deal with this problem,' so that everyone has clarity."

3. Control the meeting

Don't let the meeting run over time, and don't let it drift off topic. Intervene when someone steers the discussion away from the meeting's purpose.

"You can say: 'That's a really interesting point but perhaps we'll address that at a separate time,' " Pan says.

If the meeting's goal is to gather feedback, don't allow one or two people to dominate.

4. Close and summarise

Pan advises: "Always summarise the key actions that will be taken. And make sure you assign those tasks."

Ensure that everyone who attends knows what they must do and what their deadline is.

"When you don't do this, you get those situations where people are saying 'that was just a talkfest' or 'I don't know why we just went through that'."

Markus Mannheim

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant and writes regularly about government.

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