Governance

The effective committee member

Further information

  • Preparing and running a meeting
  • Samples

Committee members who take the time to understand the issues, and who are prepared to make considered contributions to debate can have a significant impact within the University's decision-making processes.

As a member of a committee, you have many responsibilities. You'll also have a number of rewards which can prove to be very valuable.

  1. Rewards
  2. Responsibilities

Rewards

Being a part of the decision-making process

The University is a complex organisation operating within a very complex external environment. It's regularly faced with issues/problems/decisions which will have a key impact on its core activities of teaching and research. These issues and problems are considered in its committees, and most decisions are made either by, or with the advice of, committees. The decisions made can have a major impact on the future directions and success of the institution. Being a member of a committee will give you the opportunity to be a part of the decision-making process of the University - whether at the section, school, faculty or University level.

Committee members who take the time to understand the issues, and who are prepared to make considered contributions to debate can have a significant impact within the decision-making process. Making a personal contribution of this kind can be extremely satisfying.

Building networks

You'll get to know more people in the University. These may be people from your own section or faculty, or from the wider organisation. If you plan to build a career in the University, the more people you know the better. As you build up your networks, your sense of being a part of the University community will grow.

Building your knowledge of the University

If you're fully involved in the work of your committee, you'll learn something more about the University from every meeting. UWA is a very complex working environment, and every bit of information you gather from committee work (such as through agenda papers and discussions at meetings) will help to increase your understanding of how it works. If you hope to become, for example, a head of school, a dean, or head of an administrative section at some stage in your career, you'll benefit greatly from knowledge of the University gained in this way. Most members of the University Executive, both academic and administrative, have had a long history of involvement in key committees on their progress through the ranks.

Building your confidence

If you've not previously been involved in committee work, and are not confident about speaking out in meetings, you' ll have the opportunity to build your confidence through increasing your contribution to discussion in small increments. As you get to know the Chair, the Executive Officer, and other members and become familiar with the Committee's work, making a contribution will become easier.

Learning good committee practice

As a committee member you're in a position to watch good (and sometimes less than good!) committee practice and to learn from what you observe. If your committee has a good chair and effective members, you'll gain insight which will help you to be a better member, and may at some stage help you to be an effective chair.

Hearing other perspectives

University staff have very diverse opinions on the issues which confront their sections, schools, faculties and institution, and it is instructive and potentially mind- broadening to hear and relate to this wide range of views. If you work in an isolated area of the University, and are not regularly exposed to alternative views, this can be particularly valuable.

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Responsibilities

The first steps

Understanding your role

  • While you may have been elected to your committee by a particular body (such as a faculty) or co-opted to improve the balance of a committee (for example, as a female member), once on the committee you are there as an individual and should always vote according to your own views. In order to make effective decisions for the benefit of the school/faculty/University as a whole, a committee needs a group of individuals bringing their different expertise and experience to bear on issues/problems in an open-minded way, rather than a collection of representatives arguing for different sections in the organisation.

  • You may of course wish, during discussion, to bring to the committee's attention views which members of your electorate (or gender) have expressed to you (so that the committee is aware of the range of views), but your main function on the committee is to express your own considered views. Remember that you'll almost always be better informed than members of your electorate on the committee's business, and that they've elected you to make decisions based on full information and careful consideration.

  • As you're on the committee as an individual (rather than as a member of a particular school or faculty) you should avoid taking advantage of your position to argue the case of a specific group to a University committee. Remember that the committee is aiming to make the best decisions for the school/faculty/University as a whole.

  • If you're on a committee in an ex officio position (such as Dean of a faculty, President of the Guild) you have an obligation to present to the committee any recommendation to it from the group you head. However, once this is done, you should vote (and may in some circumstances wish to speak) as your conscience dictates, for what you see as the best decision for the University as a whole. This will often (but not necessarily always) be in line with the formal recommendation of your group.

Understanding the purpose of the agenda

The purpose of the agenda is to advise members in detail of the business which will be discussed at the meeting. At UWA, best practice requires that there should be no agendas which are simply headings (Rule 21) since such agendas obviously cannot properly prepare members for what they will discuss at the meeting. The Chair of your committee, in conjunction with the Executive Officer, is responsible for ensuring that the agenda sets out the items of business in such a way that you can readily understand the nature of any issue, its history and importance, and that you have all the information necessary to make informed decisions. This will often involve not only a written agenda item, but also the use of attachments to provide additional information.

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Reading the agenda

You should receive your agenda at least three University working days before the meeting (Rule 10). This is to ensure that you have enough time to read and think about the items on the agenda before the meeting. If you don't receive your agendas within this timeframe, take the matter up with the Executive Officer.

The amount of time you'll need to set aside for a careful reading of the agenda will depend on the volume and complexity of the business of your committee. For some committees, an hour will be enough. For other committees (such as the Teaching and Learning Committee, the Academic Council and the Senate) the time required for adequate consideration of some agendas can be up to four hours. This may seem a long time, but it merely reflects the complexity of much of the business in which the modern University is involved. Participating effectively in that business and related decisions is necessarily a time-consuming exercise! It is therefore important that you do not take on more committee memberships than you can handle effectively - this is a disservice both to yourself and the committees concerned.

Take the time to read and fully understand the agenda items, so that you are fully prepared for the meeting. Members who don't do this, and who offer opinions at the meeting from a basis of ignorance, waste a lot of meeting time and irritate other members. (See Rules 12, 13 and the University Committee Members' Code of Conduct.)

Read, understand and develop an opinion on all the items on the agenda, regardless of your particular interests or experience. The committee won't be fully effective if you and/or other members "opt out" of some items of business. Nor will you be using the opportunity to build your understanding of the University.

If you don't understand an item on the agenda or you feel you need more information, don't hesitate to contact the Executive Officer. Do this before the meeting; that way, you avoid wasting time at the meeting if your query can be answered by the Executive Officer, and it gives him/her a chance to rectify the situation before the meeting if there is a need for more information for all members.

Understanding meeting procedure

Your induction session should include information about any specific meeting procedures which your committee follows. If after this program, there's anything else you need to know, ask the Executive Officer.

Developing an understanding of the rules of debate

Many of the University's committees operate fairly informally, using common sense rather than the formal rules of debate. In general the more senior the Committee in the system, the more formal the procedures used.

Members working with the more senior committees can familiarise themselves with the formal rules of debate, if the topic interests them, through reading a good textbook such as:

Horsley's Meetings Procedure, Law and Practice (1998, 4th edition, Butterworths).

There is a copy of this book in the Organisational and Staff Development Services Resource Library.

For the majority, however, familiarity with the basic rules of debate will be sufficient.

Participating in the meeting

Take with you to the meeting, in addition to your agenda, a notepad and pen in case you want to jot anything down during discussion.

In terms of Rules 13 and 14, you should be prepared to "actively participate" in the meeting. Remember that the University relies on its committees to draw out the full range of opinions on issues, so that they can be fully canvassed before decisions are made. Your opinion counts!

Some committee members, especially those new to committee work, can be intimidated by the atmosphere of meetings, particularly if the committees are large and formal. There are a few tips below for helping to overcome this. You may also wish to read the short article by Rachel Green containing tips on "Speaking Out at Meetings".

Try to learn the names of the other members of the committee as soon as possible. When they cease to be just faces, you should feel more comfortable at meetings.

Think about going a few minutes early to each meeting - this often gives the chance for a brief friendly exchange with the Executive Officer and any other members who are there a little early. This kind of exchange can help to improve your comfort level.

If you do feel intimidated, it's usually easier to speak as early in an item as you can. That way, it's unlikely that your point will already have been made, and you'll have less time to worry about speaking! It helps to have your point very clearly in your mind before the meeting (write notes for yourself if that helps). First-timers usually feel more comfortable speaking on issues with which they are familiar.

When you wish to speak, raise your arm clearly so that there can be no doubt of your wishes. It can be hard for the Chair or the Executive Officer to notice that you want to speak if you raise just your finger!

While you do need to read, understand and form opinions on each item, you don't necessarily have to speak on each item. Other members may have already made the points you want to make, and you'll merely waste time if you repeat the same point in different words. A good general rule is to speak if you have something new to add to the debate (a different view, a different rationale for a view, a response to another member's point) Occasionally, it's useful to say something brief like "I'd like to support what Dr X has just said". This would not be necessary if it was already clear that others agreed with Dr X - but if he appeared to be a lone voice, your comment would signal support and could generate more useful debate.

It's particularly important to speak if you disagree with the direction in which a debate is going. The purpose of committees is to enable members to canvass a range of views so that well-informed decisions are made after full consideration. If you have an alternative to the prevailing view, the other members should hear and consider it.

When you speak, try to be brief and to the point. The University can't afford the time for long-winded speeches!

Throughout the meeting, listen carefully to what others are saying. You might want to make a few notes, especially on points with which you would like to take issue.

Stay for the full meeting, unless you have other essential commitments (Rules 13 and 14). Remember that if members leave early, the quorum may be lost, and it may be impossible for the committee to complete important business. If you have a regular essential commitment (such as a lecture), it is courteous to advise the chair of this at the outset of the year.

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Declaring any conflict of interest

Rule 8 requires members to declare any conflict of interest and to indicate if a perceived conflict of interest could exist. When you read the agenda, you may realise that there is an item (or items) in which you have, or may appear to others to have, a conflict of interest. For example, the committee might be discussing the level of honours to be awarded to a group of students. If one student happens to be your niece, you should declare this, since your relationship could be seen by others as potentially influencing your views, even if in reality it doesn't do so. Your declaration will be recorded in the minutes and the Chair will then decide on what action to take; for example, you may be asked to leave the room or to remain silent for discussion of that student's case.

Some committees have an item under which the Chair invites members to indicate any conflict of interest in any item on the agenda. If this is not the case with your committee and you have a conflict to declare, do so at the outset of the item/s in question.

Reading the minutes

The minutes are the record of what happened at the meeting. They're not final until they've been confirmed (or amended) by the next meeting of the committee. 

You should receive the minutes within ten University working days of the close of the meeting (Rule 11). If you have not received them in this time, contact the Executive Officer.

Read the minutes as soon as you can after receiving them, so that the events of the meeting are as fresh as possible in your mind. If you think that something in the minutes is inaccurate, or that something important has been omitted, email or telephone the Executive Officer as soon as you can to discuss it. This early contact gives the Executive Officer a chance to refer back to her/his notes before the meeting. He/she may ask you to provide a proposed amendment to the minutes in written form. If he/she agrees with your proposed amendment it can then be included in the agenda for the next meeting as a proposed correction to the minutes. Alternatively, the Executive Officer can present it to the members at the time when the minutes are confirmed, so that the committee can consider whether the minutes should be changed.

Being proactive

Members of formal committees will have the chance to make comments on the effectiveness of their committees at regular intervals via a regular Review of Performance questionnaire. Performance reviews are intended to ensure ongoing improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. Take the chance to record your views honestly, and to make any suggestions you have for improvements.

You don't have to wait for a formal Review of Performance if you have a problem with the way your committee works, or a suggestion on how its operation might be improved. Take it up either with the Executive Officer or the Chair as soon as possible.

If you think that the committee is not taking proper account of the University's Principles for the Operation of Committees, take this up with the Executive Officer or the Chair. Be specific about your concerns.

Treating the committee team with respect

As a committee member, you're part of a team comprising Chair, Executive Officer and members. A team works best when all its members treat each other with respect. Listen to other members' views, however different from your own, with respect; when you respond to other members' points, remain calm and polite; and if you are unhappy with anything (such as meeting procedure or minutes content) take these issues up courteously with the Chair or Executive Officer. 

You'll find it useful to your understanding of committee work to know more about the roles of the Chair and Executive Officer of your committee.

Insisting on being treated professionally

From time to time, members of committees within the University feel that the behaviour of the Chair or of other members towards them in meetings is unprofessional. In the case of a Chair, such behaviour might take the form of ridiculing members' contributions, interrupting members before they have finished speaking, ignoring members' signals that they wish to speak, or intimidating members through inappropriately aggressive control of the meeting. In the case of members, the behaviour might take the form of ridiculing other members' contributions, talking loudly to others while members are speaking, shouting members down when they are speaking, or engaging in the exchange of derogatory body language (such as eye-rolling) with others while members are making a point. Some kinds of unprofessional behaviour are extremely overt, while others are more subtle but can be equally distressing. You should not have to put up with this kind of treatment as a member of any UWA committee.

If you feel you're being treated unprofessionally by the Chair or any other member of your committee, one option is to make an appointment to talk to the offender/s (calmly) about the behaviour. Very occasionally, offenders are genuinely unaware of the serious impact of their behaviour on the individuals they upset, and are mortified when made aware of it.

If you don't feel that talking to the offender will help, you may wish to talk to the Chair (unless of course the Chair is the offender) It may be easier for the Chair to talk privately to the offender about the behaviour (which he/she should have noticed anyway!) and to indicate clearly that it is unacceptable to him/her as well as to those at which it is directed. If the Chair is unwilling to help, seek advice from Human Resources on what further action you can take.

If the Chair is the offender and you don't feel that talking to him/her will help, seek advice from Human Resources on what action you can take in your particular situation.

While you may find it difficult and confronting to take steps to insist on being treated professionally as a member of a committee, remember that unprofessional behaviour will only be stopped if individuals take action to demonstrate that they're not willing to accept it.

Training

As mentioned in The First Steps, the short course on How the University Works: A Basic Guide to UWA's organisational and committee structures will give you a good basic overview of the University's structures and help you to see where your committee and its work sit in the overall structure.

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