How to break free from our grisly meetings culture

Councillor Toby Elliot

Why are our meetings important?

  • Because we have to have them,
  • because we’re expected to demonstrate democracy at work – the shop window,
  • because it’s where we’re most open and
  • because it’s often the first and sometimes the only way people can interact with the council

None of this is would matter if our local democracy wasn’t important. But it is. Town and parishes need to be part of the solution to a crisis of participation in our democracy. They’re where everyone can be involved and everyone can have an impact.

What would better meetings do?

  1. get more people interested,
  2. make it easy for them to understand,
  3. encourage them to participate
  4. and be clear about how decisions are made.

What are the issues and potential solutions?


  • Language
  • Dress
  • How we address each other

  • Simple, plain English agendas and reports
  • Drop the pageantry for meetings
  • Use first names for everyone
A gap between councillors and the public  

Close the physical gap. Have councillors sit amongst the ‘audience’ and all interact. Talk to each other directly


Understanding decisions
  • Voting cards – see who’s voting for what without a recorded vote
  • Write recommendations in plain English, split them up
Opportunities to participate
  • Allow members of the public to join the debate at the appropriate point on the agenda
  • Respond to a question or comment straight away
  • Let the chair manage the debate, no time limits
  • Consider facilitating group discussions rather than a meeting style debate


Summing Up

The rules that govern meetings sit in your standing orders. They belong to you, you can change them and interpret them. You hold yourselves to account about their use. Use this power and make changes.

It’s a slow process, changing expectations of what a meeting is and what a local council is for. You need to keep at it and keep changing to get more and more involved. We haven’t got it all right yet; we keep trying thing out.

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