Social channels and news outlets were ablaze on Friday 5 February with viral clips of a local council’s Zoom call descending into chaos. (The Guide Liverpool via YouTube, 5 February 2021)
Held last December and recorded on a computer desktop, the catch-up meeting between members of the Handforth Parish Council Planning and Environment Committee was characterised by fraying tempers, bureaucratic jargon and a contest over leadership – to the extent that it was essentially rudderless and too caught up in personal politics to form decisions or get anything done.
The meeting was on shaky ground right from the start, with Cllr Brian Tolver – the chair – asking for assurance that he and others would not be “thrown out of the meeting like we were last time”.
Cllr Jackie Weaver – the meeting’s host – responds: “As long as we have reasonable behaviour from everyone, no one will be excluded from the meeting.”
However, unable to let his recriminations over the previous session go, Tolver reiterates his complaint that he and two colleagues were dismissed – whereupon another male councillor snaps over him: “Quite rightly!”
Unfazed, Cllr Weaver calls a point of order to get the meeting underway – yet is quickly upstaged by another councillor doing exactly the same thing.
Tolver instantly stonewalls them both, asserting that the main part of the meeting hasn’t yet begun, and that points of order are only admissible during the actual debate. He asks Weaver to confirm that she raised a point of order, and Weaver duly does so – only for Tolver to ask her whether she raised it in the capacity of clerk, or proper officer.
Weaver explains that she is simply on hand to support the progress of the meeting – prompting Tolver to assert that raising a point of order as clerk rather than proper officer is against the law. Tensions escalate between the pair, with Tolver finally insisting that Weaver has “no authority” in the meeting – at which point, she excludes him.
Just as it seems that the session may be able to start, Cllr Aled Brewerton chips in, accusing Weaver of acting unlawfully and failing to understand process. “Read the standing orders!” he shouts.
The meeting continues in the same, fractious vein.
While the media has played up the clip’s amusement value, there is a serious side – with Handforth residents quoted as saying that their Parish Council is “not fit for purpose”. (Wilmslow.co.uk, 5 February 2021)
What sort of meeting-management lessons can be drawn from this cocktail of local acrimony?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “One of the side-effects of taking business online – which actually predates Covid, because the pandemic simply accelerated existing trends – is that our interactions have permanency. Once we’ve replaced memos with emails, and we have online meetings, and we don’t chat in corridors but through chat-boxes and team-messaging apps, we are providing a rolling audit trail of the interactions we have with our colleagues. We are accountable now in ways that we were not beforehand, because our meetings were not recorded. We had agendas and minutes.”
She notes: “Any occasion when individuals are not mindful of the fact that they are being recorded, or that evidence of their actions will be available forever, will inevitably lead to these sorts of scenarios. In this case, basic lessons about understanding the purpose of the meeting, having a clear agenda and making time for people to introduce themselves have all apparently vanished.
“One need only watch a few seconds of the Handforth clip to see that a whole host of ‘How to have a good meeting’ tips were being ignored or flouted. The situation could have been remedied with the applications of fundamental good practice, such as conveying to the participants why, in in which capacity, they were present. Not to mention treating each other respectfully and taking it in turns to speak.”
Cooper adds: “Jackie Weaver clearly emerges from this with her dignity intact, if we compare her behaviour to that displayed by some of her colleagues. Many of the issues could have been prevented by the chair opening the meeting in line with the purpose-based points I’ve outlined above. But the cautionary tale that emerges from this is how – through our adoption of digital technologies in lieu of manual organisational methods – we are providing an audit trail. There’s an excellent maxim that ethics are all about making good decisions when no one is looking. Well, now someone is looking all the time.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on running meetings
Image of Zoom screen and logo courtesy of ymphotos, via Shutterstock