Our Meeting Culture Must Change
Every day, newspapers show a picture of some meeting or the other. When you call a minister, the somber message "she is in a meeting" sounds very grave and responsible. And if it is the cabinet or the ECC, it sounds even more grave and serious. Indeed the fate of the country is decided in those meetings. What happens in those meetings? How seriously do our officials take those meetings? How well prepared are they? What is the quality of those discussions?
First, the picture in the papers. It is orchestrated in the ministry of information and us taken in the first few minutes contrived to show leaders hard at work. Why anybody would take it seriously, I do not know.
But that is not of interest. What is more interesting is the preparation for the meeting, who participates, why meetings are held, and what happens at it. Much governance improvement could happen if we can change our meeting culture.
Before we see what happens in Pakistan, let us quickly review meeting practices around the world.
Meetings around the world
- Participants must have a purpose: Steve jobs is famous for saying that meetings must be structured small and meaningful. He never allowed people to just be there who were not needed.
- Meeting preparation: Meeting experts suggest that meetings are result of a lot of hard investigation of an issue. They are called once background investigative work has been developed and absorbed by concerned people and a debate or decision is required. Consequently, meetings are prepared with agendas and documentation to support them. Moreover, this agenda and documentation is shared with people with enough notice and time to prepare for a meaningful discussion.
- More structure and investigation for higher level meetings: Higher level meetings of cabinets or cabinet subcommittees like the ECC in other countries are prepared through serious long term research and lengthy inter ministerial consultation. A policy for industrial development or investment or gas or electricity development happens only occasionally and must be built up through consultation between various ministries over months and backed by serious research and investigation to delineate clear choices. In most countries, this investigation also includes consultations with the nations intellectual capital. What should emerge on the high table is considered and well understood research and through it policy.
- Meetings are not work: meetings are required for sharing information, seeking common ground and agreeing on decisions for moving forward. But the real work is building up to meetings and informing individuals and organization with analysis of available evidence and global experience and knowledge. If not enough time is available for reading researching learning, attending seminars and conferences, learning does not happen. Meetings then get insular and incestuous and decision-making and strategy remains uninformed.
- Rules of engagement to prevent grandstanding: every meeting is structured by the chair to allow informed views to be aired and aggregated. That is why small meetings are preferred. Hierarchies and verbal pressure is resisted by rules such as equal allocation of time in higher forums and clear guidelines on language and addressing the chair etc. Even if there is no explicit voting, views are carefully tallied so that the chair sums up the sense of the meeting.
- Budgetary policy cannot be easily changed: neither the cabinet nor any forum is allowed to violate the budget which is a law that has been passed by parliament. Re appropriations must go back to parliament. Hence any proposals of a budgetary nature are not presented at such meetings.
- Ample time for strategic meetings at higher levels. Country cabinets and high level forums always keep strategic direction under review and build in long term thinking and policy review into their processes. While they have mechanisms for monitoring transactions these higher level bodies largely stay out of transactional work.
Meetings in Pakistan
Meeting, meeting all day: The first thing that strikes you in government in Pakistan is that there are too many meetings. Most people are running from meeting to meeting and then trying very hard to catch up,with their file work. No one has any time for learning through reading researching or attending conferences or seminars.
Oftentimes it seemed to me that meetings were called to fill in time. The whole day for everyone in government is spent in meetings. Even when they are not meeting, there are visitors asking for favors. So when do they read and absorb the material that is supposed to make policy decisions.
A permanent crisis: all governments in Pakistan are in a hurry to do things. There is a constant crisis mode. Even the donors talk in crisis terms: education emergency, macroeconomic crisis, energy crisis, impending water scarcity, millions below poverty line etc. not only is everyone in a hurry but all seem to claim a knowledge of all the solutions. So all we need is a meeting to make things happen--implement the favorite buzzword in Islamabad.
So Islamabad as well as its think tank, the donors, know all. Having absolved themselves of the need to investigate and research, they are absorbed in frequent and hasty meetings and the frenetic urge to implement.
Implementation without thought: All day through the year they try to implement in meetings. No one seems to the time to wonder why the various crises and emergencies are not going away despite the many hurried meetings and the deep knowledge of solutions that Islamabad and donors have. Could it this approach is flawed? Maybe less meetings, more thought, research and local thinking might be a solution.
The extreme hurry to develop without any real effort to learn and investigate pervades all levels of government. Several meetings are called at senior levels are called in a hurry supposedly in a crisis mode. Sometime the joke in the corridor is that this is to keep ministers and politicians busy. Occasionally there would be a meeting on the economic situation, once again at short notice with little preparation or inter ministerial consultation.
Too many participants: At these meeting some people are called even if they are not necessary but only because the picture in the paper would look good. One is sometimes even surprised by some itinerant presence such as a luminary or a friend of the powers that be even if they have little knowledge of the area. The meetings are way too large and unstructured and become grandstanding events with little substance.
Preparatory work: Often times no agenda is circulated for this meeting; nor is there any research or background material. The most that can be expected at most meetings is a hastily prepared power point presentation (often prepared by a junior official) that is read not by the author but the secretary. Since there is no investigative report and everything has been done in haste, opinion and loud voices and hierarchy speaks. Little is achieved. Often the meeting ends in confusion. Some window dressing is sold to the press courtesy of the PIB.
No strategic meetings: The mundane subjects that are chosen for such meetings is also quite worrisome: some road project or some sectoral issue where participants are looking for a subsidy or a brainstorming on some critical issue such as energy. Surprisingly the cabinet is approving concepts of free trade agreements which are passed with a murmur “routine matter” Why do routine matter come to the table?
Most meetings in government and even at the ECC and the Cabinet are transactional such as buying commodities such as sugar, fertilizer etc. or engaging in some foreign deal such as a big project or a long term commitment to buy LNG or some such necessity.
Again proponents of these transactions are in a tearing hurry to obtain an approval. For example, fertilizer purchases which happen every year are only brought to the table within days of an impending shortage without even the data on available stocks in the country, or the price of available fertilizer. No explanation is offered as to why such purchases cannot be smoothed out over the year through better planning. Interestingly there is no demand for such strategic thinking.
Interestingly there are occasional meetings of the economic situation, where the secretary finance makes a presentation on the economy which is short term in nature and almost totally focused on the budget. In the ECC there is a presentation on the data on inflation. There is never any meeting on economic growth and its medium term prospects.
No one is interested in how even reviewing why our growth rate has been declining over the long term or how we can get it up to the required 7 or 8 % or what is happening on employment?
The budget is no consideration: What is very surprising is that the transactions that are proposed in a hurry –purchases, subsidies, and fresh projects-- are all proposed and even approved without looking at their budgetary implications. How can you approve purchases of billions of rupees or an increase in subsidy to the farmer without worrying about what it might do to the budget in place.
Due Process, investigation and consultation: The crisis mentality and the hurry to deliver means that all processes are avoided. Ill-prepared work is hurriedly put before the cabinet and all meetings bypassing all rules of mandatory submission intervals, interdepartmental consultations and investigative requirements. Hastily-prepared summaries and a power point with the refrain of a crisis and a tearing hurry are the reasons given. And we commit billions of rupees, in the bargain setting up grounds for inquiries, litigation etc.
What is to be Done
Most important of all, we need to learn from the rest of the world. Much as we hate procedure and rules they are often required for forcing desired outcomes. But equally important, we must change the culture in our government from meetings to learning. So the culture of “meetings is work” should be changed to “reading and learning”. Similarly change should be made from meetings are a tamasha and a photo op to more pointed smaller meetings. Unnecessary people should not be invited merely to fill up a room.
But most of all this “perpetual crisis and hurry” approach must be changed. Rather than rush to act and always fall flat on your face, perhaps a slower more considered and deliberate approach might yield better results.
No meeting should take place unless the issue at hand has been thoroughly studied and the study has been circulated in advance and all concerned have had a chance to study it. Poor preparation must be penalized.
All financials must be fully disclosed. All proposals must be budget-neutral. Finance must testify to budget neutrality. Subsidy/commodity operations must be clearly shown with appropriate financing options. All ministries should be reminded that the budget making process must anticipate their purchase subsidy needs. They should not be allowed to present items that they had not not planned for then. Any new demand must be backed by an explanation of why there is a lapse from the budget commitment and where the emergency is. Then they must show where the funding must come from. MoF must come prepared to back funding and clearly show that the budget is not violated.
All items pertaining to an SRO should not be entertained
Why is it that policy, reform and restructuring work is not brought to the ECC and Cabinet? My view is transactions must be seriously discouraged. Violations of the budget that now happen all the time must be discouraged. Instead policy, reform and restructuring issues should be taken up.
All policy, reform and restructuring proposals must have give a month for inter ministerial review including a meeting to be chaired by the PC before it is even circulated. Policies are serious issue. The paper should be circulated at least a month before the meeting takes place to allow careful consideration and prevent multiplicity of policies.
All policy, reform and restructuring must be backed by research and clear indication of ownership by ministry. This will mean a well researched background paper prepared by experts in ministry. Consultants if used must be there for expert testimony.
All reform, restructuring and policy items should be clearly timeliness with implementation issues and modalities if any.
Procedure is very important: Meeting should not happen at the whims of anyone. Adequate notice is necessary for preparation time. Meetings like Cabinet and ECC should only happen at preassigned times and not randomly. They should also not happen too frequently.
There should be a quorum defined for the meeting to be held. If experts are required there must be a procedure and not that they should become a part of the meeting.
In each meeting, no more than 6 or 8 items should be taken up.
For the cabinet and ECC a rolling agenda should be maintained . All ministries should let the cabinet division know of items that they wish to place before the forums at least 3 months in advance assuring everyone of some forethought as well as some preparation. The rolling agenda must be made public. Emergency additions to the agenda must be discouraged and only entertained occasionally.
The procedure of meeting should be changed. In this electronic age, there is no reason for a long meeting. More and more written comments should be encouraged and decisions taken with minimum discussion. This will also allow better minute taking and disclosure.
There could even be a secure website for Cabinet and ECC exchange minimizing time of meeting.
The reason for a forum is to allow consensus building. In our case the Chair often decides independently of the meeting. This is not in keeping with modern democratic governance. Cabinet division must take note of views and ensure that the sense of the meeting is not overruled by the chairman.
Too often ministries keep retuning with proposals forcing an acceptance by attrition, There must be rules limiting a proposal from returning to the forum within say 6 months
Minutes are important for recordkeeping, transparency and even history. Meeting should be recorded and ministries encouraged to put more of their comments on paper and email. Minutes should be based on written comments of ministries with accurate reporting of oral discussion, if any. Minutes must be circulated and approved before next meeting.
Good governance requires that people know what is being done in these important meetings on their behalf. 3 to 6 months later the minutes must be released to the public so that the people are informed of positions taken and the sense of the meeting.