Governance

How to prepare an agenda

A skillfully crafted agenda sent out in good time is the first vital step towards ensuring that a committee meeting is efficient and effective.

The Executive Officer of a committee is responsible for this vital first step.

Don't be daunted if you're inexperienced. Preparing an agenda is a skill that can be learned. The following notes will give you a start, and repeated practice and experience should teach you the rest. Read through the notes, and then perhaps use them as a checklist for each agenda you prepare until you're comfortable with the procedures.

You'll soon find that the actions outlined will become second nature to you.

  1. The first steps
  2. Establish an effective working procedure with the Chair
  3. Style, layout, level of formality, level of detail
  4. Ensuring compliance with timelines
  5. Ownership of the agenda
  6. Scheduling agenda meetings
  7. Organising incoming agenda items
  8. Checking all potential sources of agenda items
  9. Checking the "readiness" of an item
  10. Reference of items to joint meetings of two committees
  11. Rejecting inadequate proposals
  12. Cancelling a meeting
  13. Publicising and enforcing deadlines for agenda items
  14. Avoiding the use of agendas as newsletters
  15. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 items
  16. Your responsibility in the presentation of items
  17. Understand clearly what you are writing about
  18. The benefits of understanding the issues on the agenda
  19. Item headings
  20. Numbering of items
  21. File References
  22. Choosing and labelling attachments
  23. Deciding the order of the items on the agenda
  24. Declaration of interest
  25. Other business
  26. Checking the draft
  27. Being proactive
  28. The agenda meeting
  29. Sending the agenda out on time
  30. Sending out a supplementary agenda
  31. Putting the agenda and attachments on the web
  32. Sending the agenda to the right people
  33. Agenda examples
  34. Guidelines for typing agendas

The first steps

Familiarise yourself with Rules 610 and 21 of the University's Rules for the Operation of Committees that relate to agendas. Keep them in mind in the preparation of any agenda.

Establish an effective working procedure with the Chair

The Chair of the Committee "owns" the agenda (see Ownership of the agenda below) and it is therefore important that you establish from the outset an effective procedure for the Chair's involvement in its production. In addition to the agenda meeting dealt with in Scheduling Agenda Meetings below, you may also need access to the Chair to discuss specific problems during the preparation of the agenda or to check agreed revisions to the draft agenda. You therefore need to agree on how this can best be achieved without undue delay if it's necessary (e.g. email request for phone call or meeting).

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Style, layout, level of formality, level of detail

If you've taken on responsibility for an existing committee, look at some recent past agendas and minutes for guidance on style/level of formality/level of detail for the committee.

If you've taken on responsibility for a new Committee or Working Party, you'll need to decide, in consultation with the Chair, the appropriate style and level of formality/detail for the committee's agendas and minutes (Rule 9). If the new Committee belongs with an existing group of committees (for example, Senate Committees, Academic Council Committees, Faculty Committees) look at examples of the agendas of other committees in the group for guidance. For such committees, also seek advice from the Executive Officer of the "parent" Committee on specific requirements.

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Ensuring compliance with timelines

Make a practice at the start of each year of putting the dates of all scheduled meetings of your committee for the year in your diary (hard copy or electronic), as well as the dates by which agendas must be sent out to members to meet the University requirement (Rule 10) that agendas are dispatched to members at least three working days before the meeting. You should also enter the date by which you must start work on the agenda. Give yourself sufficient time, being particularly generous if you are inexperienced, as a complex agenda can take a surprising amount of time to prepare to final draft stage, and you must allow additional time for discussion of the draft with the Chair (or in some cases the Steering Committee) and the implementation of any agreed changes.

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Ownership of the agenda

The Chair of a Committee "owns" the agenda, though the Executive Officer does most of the work of producing it. It is therefore essential that the Chair is happy with the final agenda. The most effective way of ensuring this is to have an agenda meeting between Chair and Executive Officer to consider the draft agenda and clarify any changes which the Chair wants after discussion. Some "senior" Committees such as Senate and Academic Board/Council have Steering Groups to consider and advise the Chairs on draft agendas, but this isn't normally necessary for other committees.

The Chair may ask for changes to the draft (for example, of order, wording, tone) during your discussion. The Chair should normally approve the final version of the agenda, though once you're an experienced Executive Officer, you may find that the Chair is happy to trust you to make the agreed changes without further reference back.

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Scheduling agenda meetings

Formally scheduling agenda meetings with the Chair will help to ensure that these meetings take place in good time. At the outset of the year (or before a new committee starts operation) arrange and diarise the agenda meetings (preferably in a standard timeslot in relation to the agenda deadline date.)

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Organising incoming agenda items

If your committee has a number of scheduled meetings through the year, you may find it helpful to open a file (hard copy and/or electronic) for each meeting, in which you can collect agenda items for that meeting. Do whatever items you can in advance, if you have time. For example, if the committee has annual items at specific meetings (such as the election of a chair) you might put all these items in the appropriate folders at the start of the year (copying from last year where possible, with appropriate updates).

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Checking all potential sources of agenda items

Make sure you know all the possible sources of items for your committee's agendas - these might include "Business Arising" or "Items in Progress" (unfinished business from an earlier meeting, or items from an earlier meeting which are ongoing items); matters referred from "feeder" committees and sub-committees in their minutes; items from the Chair or other officers (for example, Associate Deans in faculties); or items referred from committees higher in the hierarchy (e g items referred by Academic Council to faculties). When putting together an agenda, make sure you don't miss any items from standard sources.

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Checking the "readiness" of an item

From time to time you may receive an item for the agenda which needs to be "steered" to another Committee for its view or to a specific member of the University's staff for comment before it can be considered by your committee. Such steering may be in accordance with a specific Academic Board, or Faculty resolution, or it may simply be good sense because the Committee needs input from an expert source before it can make an informed decision. Discuss such items with the Chair as soon after you receive them as possible, to reduce delays in their progress through the system.

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Reference of items to joint meetings of two committees

Occasionally you may identify an item for your committee's agenda as also being of significant interest to another committee. In such a case, it may be useful for the item to be discussed at a joint meeting of the two committees, rather than be referred to each separately. If you identify an item as potentially of this kind, discuss it with the Chair as soon as possible after you receive it. (Rule 10)

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Rejecting inadequate proposals

You may occasionally receive an item (for example, from another committee) which you believe is inadequate for presentation to your committee in its current form. Discuss this as soon as possible with the Chair. If the Chair agrees, you should then decide which of you will take the matter up with the originator (depending on the politics!) The Chair (or you) will need to be clear about the precise nature of the inadequacy and what has to be done by the originator/s to rectify it. It's not your job to rectify serious inadequacies in documentation produced by others. You'll probably feel uncomfortable about rejecting inadequate proposals, but remember that it's your responsibility to ensure that your committee receives clear, complete agenda items.

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Cancelling a meeting

If you think there is insufficient important/contentious business to justify holding a scheduled meeting, discuss with the Chair whether it should be cancelled. It may be possible to circulate business which is urgent but appears uncontentious, with a Chair's recommendation, and a deadline for disagreement (Principle 2 and Rule 5).

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Publicising and enforcing deadlines for agenda items

It's important that you advise the bodies/individuals forwarding items for your agendas of the deadlines for submission of their completed items. You should provide this advice in written form at the start of the year or at the start of a Working Party's work. Except in genuinely exceptional cases, you and the Chair should enforce the publicised deadlines (Rule 10) or you'll risk sending your agendas out late, which could invalidate the meeting. (Sending the agenda out on time). Even if you can include late items and still meet the deadline, you'll make the completion of your agendas extremely stressful and may encourage the offenders to think that your deadlines will always be flexible.

If in doubt about whether the circumstances surrounding the submission of a late item are exceptional (or whether the likely outcomes for the University of not accepting the item will be a problem) talk to the Chair. You may occasionally be put in a position where there's little choice but to accept a late item, because the outcome for the University of not progressing it immediately would be serious. In such circumstances, it's good practice for the Chair to make sure that the originator is made aware that late submission has caused difficulties and that the item is only being progressed in the interests of the University.

Avoid putting information on an agenda simply for information and noting, unless it relates directly to the committee itself (for example, information about new members). Agendas shouldn't be used as newsletters for committee members, faculty members or the wider University community. If you need to disseminate information, look for more appropriate ways of doing it ( such as through  email or website information pages).

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Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 items

If your committee is in the formal Senate/Academic Board/Faculty structure, you should divide your agendas into Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 (Rule 10). Part 1 contains "items for communication to be dealt with en bloc" that require no discussion or decision; Part 2 is for "en bloc" approval of the Chair's clear recommendations on routine, apparently uncontentious matters without discussion. Part 3 is for items which clearly warrant or require discussion. You'll readily identify some items as Parts 1 and 2 matters and others as Part 3 items. If you're unsure about the placing of an item, make a "best guess" decision for the draft agenda and discuss it with the Chair when you consider the draft together.

In drafting a Part 2 item, frame a clear recommendation from the Chair and highlight it in the agenda so that members can readily pick it out from the text. For example:

The Chair recommends that the Committee endorse Resolution 40/04 of the Research Committee.

Any member can ask before or at the meeting that an item placed in Part 2 of the agenda be considered in Part 3, and you should mention this at the start of Part 2. Placement in Part 2 does not therefore remove the chance for discussion: it simply avoids unnecessary discussion.

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Your responsibility in the presentation of items

In preparing items, particularly complex Part 3 items, be aware that the ability of members to make an informed decision on the issue (or issues) in each item lies in your hands. You are responsible for ensuring, via your item and the attachments you choose, that members can readily understand the nature of the issue, its history, and its importance. You may find it helpful to outline options in relation to a particular issue. Your item must be neutral in tone - giving clear information without trying to lead or influence members in any way.

Complex agenda items take time to produce - they must be thought through and carefully crafted so that they are clear and precise. The work you put in to achieve this will help members to understand the issues and should help to save time at the meeting.

Writing good agenda items for complex issues is a skill which can be developed and honed. If you're new to the task, it's useful to learn from more experienced operators by reading and analysing some of their agenda items, and noting especially how they introduce items, identify the issues, outline options and use attachments. There's no absolutely fixed formula for drafting agenda items, though many comprise three main segments - background to issue (Beginning), identification and clarification of issue (Middle) and statement of committee's task (End).

Rest assured that practice, combined with the will to learn, will lead to steady improvement in your skills.

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Understand clearly what you are writing about

You won't be able to write a clear agenda item unless you really understand what you are writing about. It's essential that you invest the necessary time in understanding the background, the issues, the options and the implications of choosing each of the options. Read all the material relating to an item before you start to put the agenda item together. If possible, refer back to the originators of any documents you don't understand. Seek help from senior staff if you're confused after you've read and digested the relevant materials. Once you thoroughly understand the issues surrounding an item, your task of presenting it so that members can readily understand it will be much easier. The most lucid agenda items are often the end result of the Executive Officer's own struggle to make sense of the material to be presented!

Be prepared for the necessary reading, assimilation and understanding of material to take considerable time when the issues are complex. Unfortunately there are no short cuts!

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The benefits of understanding the issues on the agenda

Your hard work in making sure that you're fully informed before you write an agenda item will pay dividends. It will enable you to discuss issues usefully with the Chair at the agenda meeting: it will help to ensure that members readily understand the issues; and in helping you understand points made at the meeting it will make the writing of your minutes very much easier. (There are few administrative tasks more uncomfortable than having to write the minutes of a discussion you didn't understand!) In addition, you'll gradually build up knowledge of the University which will often feed usefully into other areas of your work.

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Item headings

Give a clear, precise heading to each item on your agenda, which accurately captures what the item is about. The right heading can be used for the item all the way through the system, and will make filing of all discussions on the item much easier for all concerned. For example:

TEACHING AND LEARNING COMMITTEE-2003 BUDGET- REF: 06/04/010/071

(Note the precision of the title. If the writer had used just 2003 BUDGET it could have been taken to refer to the University Budget.)

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Numbering of items

Number all your items from 1 onwards for each agenda. If you have several items which you want to group under one broader topic, separate the items numerically within the main item number; for example,  1.1., 1.2.,1.3.

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File references

Allocate the correct file reference to every item, so that it goes on the right file (which will then contain the full story for future years). If your committee is within the formal Senate/Board/Council/Faculty/School committee hierarchy, you should undertake training in the allocation of file references. If you have problems with allocating the right file number to particular items after training, staff in Records will be happy to help. If you leave items without file references, you only make work for others as well as risking having your item wrongly filed.

If your committee or Working Party lies outside the formal committee hierarchy, you should still be allocating file references (University or more local, depending on the nature of the business) to agenda items, as these will still need to be stored in appropriate files.

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Choosing and labelling attachments

In framing an agenda item, you'll often need to make use of attachments which contain information relevant to the item. Frequently used attachments include extracts from minutes of other committees, written reports from sub-committees, responses to requests from the committee for comment. All attachments should provide material relevant to the agenda item, which members need if they are to be in a position to make an informed decision. Inevitably, for complex issues, this will mean that some attachments are long and complex.

An agenda item should never simply be a list of attachments. The item may sometimes be brief but should always be framed in such a way as to explain the presence of the attachments in the context of the issue/s to be considered.

You and the recipients may be concerned about the quantity and detail of information in your chosen attachments. Avoid attaching very short documents, the crux of which can readily be included in your agenda item, but resist pressure to produce summaries of complex documents - it's almost impossible to reduce a truly complex issue to a simple short document. Oversimplification can be very misleading. The agenda meeting offers an opportunity to discuss with the Chair the attachments you have chosen.

Make sure that your attachments are clearly labelled both within the agenda item (or in the margin, if this does not cause problems when your agenda is placed on the web) ) and on the attachments themselves. Normal practice is to use letters (A,B,C...) to label attachments in order (within the text or in the margin) and to number the pages within each attachment in bold writing on the bottom right corner. So for example, your first reference to an attachment to the agenda might be to an '"Extract from the Minutes of the Meeting of the Academic Council" (Attachment A) and the attachment itself would be marked A1 on the first page, A3, A5 and so on, for easy reference during the meeting. All attachments should be labelled at the top to indicate what they are, if this is not already clear on the document.

Rule 10 requires that for any item which has been discussed previously by your committee "a chronology of key elements of the discussion should be attached" to the agenda. If the item has only been discussed once before, the easiest way to record this is in the agenda item itself. However, if the item has been discussed at more than one meeting, the most efficient way to provide the background for members is to write a chronology which can be attached to the agenda.

You should update the chronology after the meeting, and forward a copy to the Executive Officer of any committee the item will go on to, for use as an attachment to his/her agenda.

If the item has come to you from another committee, which has discussed it more than once, ask the Executive Officer of that committee to provide you with the Chronology to date.

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Deciding the order of the items on the agenda

The normal order of standard items on an agenda for a formal meeting may be specified in Standing Orders (e.g. for Senate) or may be based on tradition and good sense. Always start your agenda with confirmation of the minutes of the last meeting, and follow this with any Part 1 items. The order of these isn't usually critical, though you'd normally place items such as information on new members attending their first meeting at the beginning of this section.

The ordering of items in Part 3 can be difficult, and you should discuss this with the Chair when you look at the draft together. Issues to be considered may include: grouping of similar items; the urgency of items; the relative importance of items; the relative complexity of items; the expected duration of items. There may be occasions on which one item must precede another, because the decision on the first will affect the other item. You'll pick up skills in agenda ordering as your experience grows.

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Declaration of interest

Rule 8 relates to conflict of interest issues and the responsibility of the Chair for providing an opportunity for members to declare any conflict of interest in respect of any item.

The simplest way to handle this is to have a standing item, ideally as an introductory item before Part 1 of every agenda, in which the chair asks members to declare any interest they may have in any of the items which might affect or be perceived by others to affect their ability to make impartial decisions. Any interests declared are noted, and the chair decides how they should be handled.

Discuss with your Chair whether there should be such an item in the agendas for your committee. This in an example of a "DECLARATION OF INTEREST" item:

DECLARATION OF INTEREST

Members are referred to Clause 6 of the Senate Code (adopted by Senate Resolution 275/00) which deals with Conflicts of Interest. In terms of the final section of that clause, members are required to:

  • openly declare matters of private interest such as investments, relationships, voluntary work and membership of other groups that may conflict or be perceived to conflict with their public duty as members
  • record any issues of conflict to ensure that they are transparent and capable of review
  • disqualify themselves from any discussions and decisions where a conflict of interest has occurred, or could occur.
  • The Chair will ask whether any member has an interest to declare in relation to any items on this agenda.

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Other Business

Discuss with the Chair whether you should include an "Other Business " item at the end of the agenda, as this is really a personal preference. Of course, the Chair should never accept any matter of importance under such an item, as this would not enable full, informed consideration, based on appropriate documentation and adequate time to think. However, it may provide an opportunity for members to ask questions, or seek information (and may of course result in an item for a future meeting). If your Chair wants an Other Business item, he /she may wish to require (via the agenda item) that he/she receive prior notice of business to be raised. (Rule 10)

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Checking the draft

Once you've got your draft agenda and attachments together, have a final read through. Are the items clear? Does every Part 2 item have a Chair's clear recommendation? Will members know what they're being asked to do in Part 3 items? Are the attachments properly labelled so that they match the entry in the appropriate agenda items and are easy to find? Does the order of the items adhere to any formal requirements for your committee, or failing that, are there logical or other clear reasons for the order? Are there any spelling/grammatical errors? Try to put yourself in the position of a critical member as you read the draft.

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Being proactive

Be critical when you put together an agenda rather than just following past practice. Ask yourself in relation to each item, whether there is a good reason (or a formal requirement) for it to go to the Committee. Are there better (and permissible) ways of dealing with any item? Could the Committee establish guidelines under which particular decisions could be made by the Chair or by other University staff? If you have doubts about whether an item needs to be on the agenda, discuss the matter with the Chair, and where appropriate take advice from a senior member of staff. Remember that the University wants to use committees efficiently and effectively to deliberate on significant issues and policies. It doesn't want committees to be rubberstamping decisions made elsewhere, or indulging in broad unfocused discussions (Principles 2 and 5; Rules 10131420).

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The agenda meeting

Have your draft ready for the scheduled meeting with the Chair (or ideally, in time for the Chair to see it before the meeting) Take the proposed attachments with you to the meeting. Work through the draft, giving the background to each item, explaining the attachments, and raising any problems/queries with the Chair for resolution. Be prepared to make changes to the agenda if the Chair isn't happy with it after your discussion.

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Sending the agenda out on time

Send the agenda out on time - that is at least three University working days before the meeting (Rule 10). If there's a genuinely unavoidable late item, do not delay the agenda for this, but advise that a supplementary agenda (an additional item or items) will follow as soon as possible.

Bear in mind that members will be justifiably irritated if an agenda (particularly a long complex agenda) is late and their time for reading it is inadequate. Technically, they could ask that the meeting be rescheduled or items delayed to a later meeting if you do not comply with the University's required timeline. Members will normally tolerate a supplementary agenda if there's a compelling reason for its lateness, and if agendas are normally on time.

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Sending out a supplementary agenda

If you have to use a supplementary agenda, send it out as soon as possible.

Putting the agenda and attachments on the Web

Arrange to have the agenda and attachments put on the Web or on your Sharepoint site at the same time as, or as soon as possible after, the agenda is distributed to members (Rule 10). Very large documents should not be part of the agenda for downloading, but should be provided separately for viewing.

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Sending the agenda to the right people

Check the distribution list of the agenda regularly to make sure that new members have been added, and that those whose period of service has been completed have been deleted. From time to time, check the lists of those who receive agendas for information to make sure that those who receive it really need it, and those who really need it get it.

If you list members on the agenda (as for example, the Academic Council does) use first names as well as titles and surnames as this helps new members to identify their fellow members.

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Agenda examples

Academic Council agendas illustrate many of the points in this section. You can access them through the Committees page.

While the style of these agendas may be too formal for some committees, they demonstrate the kind of good practice which should be of help to anyone new to writing agendas.

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Guidelines for typing agendas

Information on the layout of agendas

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