Despite the jokes that committees ‘keep minutes but waste hours’ or are ‘the unprepared, appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary’ – sitting on a committee is something that all public managers will do at some point.
In fact, committees and boards are such an inevitable part of public sector decision-making that we don’t analyse how they could work better.
New ANZSOG-funded research, conducted by Professor Sandra Oliver and colleagues, is attempting to discover why some committees work better than others and has come up with six key lessons.
Hopefully they can help you avoid committees that meet for hours without reaching tangible conclusions, or where one or two members dominate the entire process!
The research – published in the latest issue of ANZSOG’s Evidence Base journal – reviews the evidence on how we can make committees work effectively and efficiently.
It concludes that committee decisions need to be based on high-quality research, include consideration of all relevant views and be based on a critical evaluation of all evidence to avoid ‘groupthink’.
They should not shy away from internal conflict – something that can be the result of a genuinely varied membership – but need to have processes in place to manage conflict in a constructive way.
Professor Oliver and her colleagues conducted a systematic search in various fields, including business administration, health research and social psychology. They synthesized the findings of 37 systematic reviews and 12 theoretical models that focused on decision making about highly technical issues by mixed groups of people.
The research found that committee performance depends on who is part of the committee, what their relationships are and whether they have enough time to share and evaluate relevant knowledge.
The six key lessons
It outlines six key lessons for committee work, related to the size and composition of committees, as well as their internal processes.
Get the size right: In general, groups with six to twelve members tend to perform better than those in either smaller or larger groups, especially when relying on virtual communication. Below six members the reliability of decisions falls away, and above 12 becomes unwieldy.
Get varied perspectives: We all have our own bias and the wider the range of knowledge bases and opinions on a committee the better. For the best decisions try to appoint members from all key stakeholder groups, within the size limit.
Give people time: Members need time to digest and analyse information presented to the committee before decisions are made. This is particularly the case if you have a diverse range of opinions and information informing the committee.
Use formal decision making: Set out the committee’s scope clearly. All committee members need to know exactly when and how decisions or recommendations are to be made (e.g. is consensus required?) and should be given the relevant technical literature to inform their decisions.
Face-to-face contact matters: It’s not always possible to get everyone in a room together but be wary of relying on technology. Using email or bulletin boards instead of face-to-face discussion means members become more disengaged, and while working virtually can allow for a more diverse membership it makes it harder to build trust and cohesion.
Make diversity work for you: Demographic diversity is valued for bringing different perspectives and a wider variety of alternatives for consideration. Educational and functional diversity has given teams greater strategic clarity. However, you need to make sure that you manage this diversity well. More time and effort may be required to explore issues requiring judgements where committee members vary in status or come from different backgrounds.
Making sure that all six of these conditions are met is difficult but worthwhile. But it does put extra importance on the role of the committee chair who must allow a diverse group to work together, build trust and manage conflict constructively.
The research recommends appointing committee chairs for their facilitation skills and generalist background rather than specialist knowledge. This may require agencies to train committee chairs to ensure that they are able to meet their responsibilities.
While it’s probably true that nobody ever put up a statue of a committee, the work they do is essential for good public management and is becoming more important as public services come under increased scrutiny.
As well as demands for effective and efficient work, committees in the 21st century are facing new demands to be evidence-based and transparent, both in terms of their final decisions and their process.
Getting them right will become increasingly important both for the quality of decisions and for defending those decisions to the public and other stakeholders.
All public managers can benefit from thinking more deeply about how their committees could work better, rather than just repeating the structures and mistakes of the past.
ANZSOG’s Evidence Base journal is an open access publication that publishes systematic reviews of complex policy issues.