Let me guess. As a city government official, you’re tired of bad habits which perpetually plague your group—meetings that start late, discussion that never ends, and members who want to follow their whim instead of a plan.

Allow me to present a valuable organizational tool—the agenda. You’re likely using one, but perhaps ineffectively. This “refresher course” will remind you of how helpful a well-constructed, purposeful agenda can be.

What is an agenda?

An agenda is a discussion plan, an ordered blueprint of meeting business.

But why?

Agendas exist for several reasons. At a minimum they inform members which topics will be discussed and in what order.

  1. An agenda gives you and everyone else a plan.

Understatement of the day: Presiding officers should never wing it (or ignore the agenda). To do so is to create a fertile environment for confusion. Instead, a presiding officer should (1) participate in creating the agenda and (2) follow the agenda.

Lead by creating the plan. Even if staff are responsible for constructing an initial draft, you, as the group leader, should ask to see the agenda draft several days before the meeting and should review and comment on it. Ultimately, you should know the agenda better than anyone and understand reasons for the order of the topics.

Then, follow that plan. Members often want to veer from the agenda by re-ordering topics or adding additional ones. But resist the temptation to let this happen without group approval. And when making shifts to an agenda seems appropriate, put the suggestion to the group for consent. Doing otherwise communicates that one member’s “agenda” is more important than everyone else’s.

  1. An agenda controls discussion.

The agenda is the discussion guide. Leaders need to stick to three simple agenda-use rules to facilitate meaningful, efficient discussion.

  • No one speaks unless recognized.
  • Only one person speaks at a time.
  • Speakers may discuss only the issue that’s on the floor.

That third rule is critical. An agenda is your easy out when someone jumps up to speak and starts into a personal vendetta against the city council. Simply point everyone back to the agenda. Keep discussion relevant.

  1. An agenda controls meeting length.

The best agendas are time based. Assign time limits to each item. Run your meeting by that schedule. Decide the number of members that can speak in favor of and against each motion. And limit members’ speaking time. Involve a timekeeper, and when a speaker’s time runs out, just kindly say, “The member’s time has expired.”

Tricks of the Trade—Using Your Agenda Well

  1. Adapt the standard order of business (see Robert’s Rules) to work for you. The standard agenda is a good starting point. But if it doesn’t work for your particular local governing body, you do have the power to change it.

Here’s a basic plan:

  • Reading and approval of minutes
  • Reports from officers, boards, and standing committees
  • Reports from special committees
  • Special orders of business
  • Unfinished business and general business
  • New business

But there are other options that may work better (and may be adopted if a majority of the membership agrees).

  • Priority Agenda

This option places the most important items first. For example, don’t leave coverage of your new five-year strategic plan till the end of a two-hour meeting when everyone is exhausted. Put it at the top. Look at what needs to be accomplished and prioritize.

  • Consent Agenda

This tactic screams “efficiency.” Group non-controversial topics into one big item on your agenda and take a single vote on all of them—a yes or no on all. The advantage is productivity—no unnecessary debate on small points about which no one disagrees!

  • Subject-Based Agenda

A third option groups topics by large categories. Example: Discuss everything about the strategic plan at the same time – who, when, budget, everything. This method allows focus and, therefore, progress.

  • Presiding Agenda

This option might help you in particular. On a presider’s agenda copy only, type a column of special notes (e.g., Recognize Jane on this topic. Carlos will have a report on this topic.) An annotated copy supports efficiency for leadership.

  1. Set a start time and stick to it. If your agenda states the meeting starts at noon, then start at noon, not 12:01. In my experience as a parliamentarian, meetings tend to start late for two main reasons: (1) an essential person is unprepared, or (2) members are late. The solution to both is simply to establish a pattern of punctuality.

Warning: Your first attempt to adjust to the new normal of “the agenda start time is the actual start time” may be rough. Members will walk in after the meeting has started. It’ll be a wake-up call that you’re actually starting on time. But it won’t take long for people to adapt, and you’ll find this aspect of agenda management to be extremely helpful in supporting meeting efficiency.

  1. Repeat each agenda item. And repeat any motions. Repeatedly. Members can often be confused as to what agenda item you’re on, what’s being discussed, what motion is on the floor. So, it’s your job to fix this by repeating each item ad nauseum. Repeat it right after it’s seconded, repeat it again during debate, and repeat it again before taking a vote. No matter how clear you think you’ve been, at least one member hasn’t been paying attention and is confused. Keep everyone on the same page by constantly clarifying where you’re at on the agenda.