Just a Minute…….Governance Practice in the New Normal

Jim Benson

Lead Consultant, AUA Consulting

Jim has worked in higher education for almost 30 years, holding the position of Secretary to Council and University Secretary at Brunel University from 2007-2018 and now as University Secretary at the University of East London.  Formerly interim Board Clerk at Kingston University, he has also held posts as governance advisor at the London School of Economics and at Rose Bruford College. 

Being ever the optimist, I am making plans for returning to face to face meetings sooner rather than later and, in relation to committee administration, a few positives have emerged as a result of the global pandemic.  I am no longer overly worried about anyone requesting remote access to a meeting-as pre-March 2020 any such request, while wholly understandable, would just bring to mind unloved technology and unreliable internet connections.  That is not to suggest that these problems don’t still exist but I suspect I have grown used to them and have learnt how to minimise their impact.  I have seen some really good innovative meetings run through Teams and Zoom facilities and we all seem to have adopted new skills-although mine seems to be limited to not shouting at the laptop and therefore being audible to half of south London.

Right now, I am testing what else can we take from this and my thoughts turn to the task of minute taking.  Whether you enjoy doing minutes or not, no one doubts this is time consuming both for the authors and the readers.  There are plenty of guides around about effective and efficient minute taking but is the time ripe for accepting a recording of a meeting as an official record?

I am not sure we are ready yet.  Unless your institution’s governing documents state otherwise, there is no legal impediment to having a recording as an official record save for the fact that they would have to be retained in the same way that minutes are. Obtaining consent from participants is a formality but weaning colleagues away from written records may be more of a challenge. Despite the manual processes involved in generating written minutes, there is at least a means of obtaining an impartial record that is approved after review.  We would inevitably have the process of the committee secretary having to introduce each participant whenever they spoke and having a detailed summary of key points and actions after every agenda item with all attendees acknowledging what had been said.  This hardly makes for a smoothly run meeting.  The case of PCP v Barclays Bank Plc (2020) highlighted the need to ensure that accurate records of meetings were maintained and while the defects of a written record might be readily rectified, doing so with a recording cursed with unstable internet connections and technology failings is more difficult. I suppose my main reservation is the recorded meeting is a contemporaneous record noting just what was said rather than what was, on reflection, actually meant.

There are plenty of guides around about effective and efficient minute taking but is the time ripe for accepting a recording of a meeting as an official record?

Colleagues across the sector have all indicated that serving meetings remotely has enhanced the importance of the role of committee secretaries and brought a number of technical innovations that were unappreciated pre-March 2020.  Colleagues inform me that meeting attendance is high and we are much more responsive to the needs of committee members.  The new normal is here and will shape both governance and regulatory processes during what is bound to be a rapid phase of development in the sector.  Of course I would have preferred that none of this had happened with the global pandemic being entirely avoided and us remaining blissfully ignorant of how to share screens, change participants’ names and all the other functions that come with Zoom and Teams. 

These days we have to look for the odd ray of sunshine and one of mine is what we can now do with committee meetings. With regards to minutes, I will still be getting a sore arm and dirty looks from those who know I am not yet minded to change.  Don’t let my reservations stop you and let’s keep the debate going as we work together on further developing governance practice in the months and years to come.

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