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A Comment on Committees: Maximizing Group Decision-Making

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joseph G. Jarret
October 20, 2023


By the time I became a public sector administrator, manager and lawyer, I had spent 10 years on active-duty military service. As such, when I began serving a local government entity as its risk manager and as assistant county attorney, I presumed I was well-versed in the mechanics of committee decision-making. I wasn’t. The meetings to which I was summoned while in the Army were brief, to the point and run by people who spoke in short, declarative sentences, and who issued orders that were unhesitatingly carried out. In other words, I had no idea what true committees were, nor was I prepared for what some committees did, or didn’t do. I quickly learned that many committees met for what seemed to be interminable amounts of time, with no resolution reached when adjourned. Further, some committees seemed to have no meaningful objective, existing merely out of inertia or custom. I even once worked for a public entity that not only had a mind-boggling number of committees, but even had a “Committee on Committees”, the purpose of which was to monitor all other committees. These experiences didn’t make me committee-averse, rather, they taught me that committees can be valuable decision-making tools, if properly led and managed.

The Why of Committees

Generally speaking, committees are formed to enable in-depth discussion on a set of related issues. Further, Committees involve members in the development and delivery of services, represent members’ opinions in decision-making and thereby encourage members to fully and candidly interact with one another. They also offer the opportunity for group problem-solving, and can be a forum for presenting multiple points of view. Committees can also serve as the training ground for future leadership and an arena where emerging leaders can test and refine their skills and abilities. For these reasons, committee effectiveness is critical to an entity’s operations. Consequently, this piece will offer a few tips on how to effectively facilitate shared governance, thus allowing a diverse array of stakeholders to share their expertise and perspectives while contributing to committee input-gathering and decision-making.

The Way of Effective Committees—The Chair

Needless to say, effective committees don’t just happen. They are carefully planned and constructed to have a balanced representation of members, a clearly defined mission or objective and work plan, competent staffing and a dedicated chair. As to the latter, experience has taught me that the overall success of a committee can often be directly linked to the effectiveness of the committee chair. Since this individual is ultimately responsible for planning the work of the group, conducting meetings, maintaining records and appropriate information about their decisions, ensuring actions are taken and evaluating results, the effectiveness of the chair is in direct proportion to the effectiveness of the committee. Accomplished leadership expert Maryann Bruce suggests that “Being a successful committee chair often requires you to be innovative, solving deficiencies with creative solutions while not straying from your lane.” She further asserts that “Successful committee chairs, like conductors, see the sum of all parts, leading others to make contributions that elevate solutions and improve overall performance. Through strong leadership, they develop a harmonious environment that allows board members to truly sing.”

The Way of Effective Committees—Membership

In inviting or appointing committee members, it is vital that one articulates the reason(s) they were selected to participate while providing clear member expectations and gaining commitment. Needless to say, committee members should be carefully selected. These are the people who will be solving problems for the whole organization. They should be somewhat knowledgeable in the area of the committee’s responsibility, and likewise, be a diverse group while remaining compatible. There should be a written description of what is expected of each committee to guide the chair and members. The description should summarize the purpose of the committee, its composition and selection procedure and the specific duties of the committee. Time must be taken to clarify each group’s role, while establishing what results the organization expects from the committees’ efforts. This eliminates the possibility of having several groups working on the same project. You can improve committee effectiveness by giving a clear charge to the committee with an expectation of the deliverables and time-frame and guidelines governing the way in which the committee will engage. Depending on your organization, it might prove helpful to prepare an agenda for each meeting and circulate it at least four days in advance. Agendas that distinguish between discussion items and those that will require a decision or action are usually the most effective.

Meeting Adjourned

The Young Adult Library Services Association recommends that, at the end of each committee meeting, the chair should ask for written or oral comments about the session. In some organizations, this is a feature of every meeting and is referred to as the “check out.” A relatively small investment of time can produce continuous improvements in the work of the committees. Immediate feedback from members can be solicited on how well the meeting achieved its purposes, if members stayed on task and if there is anything that can be done to improve the effectiveness of future committee meetings. Richard Hackman reminds us committees are internal social processes. As such, they operate as the committee interacts while maintaining and hopefully enhancing group members’ ability to collaborate in the future.  

Author: Dr. Joe Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who lectures full-time on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a former United States Army Combat Arms Officer with service overseas and a past-president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA and holds the B.S., MPA. J.D. and Ph.D. degrees.

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