When the Wheels Fall Off a Meeting
- Posted by David Gray
- On May 13, 2020
- Board Meetings
In my New Zealand-based governance consulting work, I’m privileged to work with a number of Māori tribal governance bodies. These are organisations which have been created (often by Act of Parliament) to govern the affairs of an iwi (or tribe) and to manage its assets. Tribal members are elected to the boards of these bodies through various kinds of electoral processes, often designed to achieve fair and equitable representation of sub-tribes, geographical areas and/or other characteristics of the tribe.
One of the features of board meetings of tribal governance bodies is that things can get pretty heated from time to time. There seems to be something about the governance of tribal affairs that gives rise to passionate convictions and strong emotions. Much of this is good; after all, the body exists so that the tribe flourishes and each member reaches his or her potential. There’s obviously a lot at stake, so one would expect a range of strong opinions to be expressed at the board table.
Another feature of these bodies is the frequency with which parties seek to make submissions directly to the board itself. Addressing and resolving difficult issues—or any issue, really—face to face is a key part of Māori culture. It is common, therefore, for various factions within the tribe to ask to meet with the board to present their views. These factions will often arrive at the board meeting in large numbers with the objective of impressing their views upon the board by virtue of numbers, rather than by the strength of their arguments.
The downside of these features of tribal governance is that meetings of the board can often descend into disorder, and the board can even be forced on occasion to suspend its activities until order is restored or to adjourn meetings indefinitely.
For this reason, I always recommend that boards have a tool to manage such situations. The tool is a set of meeting rules, sometimes called standing orders or rules of order. The rules are adopted by the board as part of its governance process policies, either as a stand-alone policy or (for example) as part of the board’s code of conduct.
The meeting rules spell out the way board meetings must be managed and participants must behave. They usually cover such matters as who may speak and when, what constitutes acceptable subject-matter for board discussion, how and on what basis points of order may be raised, what powers the chairperson has to intervene in unruly meetings and to maintain order, and so on.
Importantly for tribal governing bodies, the meeting rules also stipulate who may be heard face-to-face by the board, how applications to be heard must be made, what constitutes acceptable subject-matter for face-to-face presentations, how many attendees are permitted, and so on.
Meeting rules function as a kind of insurance policy for the board. For most of the time at most of its meetings, the board won’t need to refer to them. However, on those occasions when passions get out of hand for whatever reason and the board’s ability to function comes under threat, the chairperson is able to apply the rules to reinstate order and thus enable the board to continue to focus on its job.