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A Simple Technique for Improving Council Decision Making

One of the things that has always fascinated me as a student and observer of local government has been the process that local legislative bodies use to discuss, debate, and formulate policy decisions. To my mind, much of what constitutes “good government” is a direct consequence of an open, fair, and effective legislative decision-making process. The open and fair parts are regulated by state laws relating to issues such as campaign finance reporting, public records disclosure, and open public meetings. Effectiveness, on the other hand, is left to the local legislative body.

While there are a lot of moving parts in this process and, therefore, lots of opportunities to improve it, one critical aspect, and the focus of this blog post, has to do with the way local legislative bodies deliberate on the policy issues that come before them. When acting in their formal legislative capacity, local councils come together for a very specialized purpose -- to discuss, debate, and finally decide on important issues affecting their communities. It is at this point during the give and take of their policy discussions, where arguments are put forth, opinions are swayed, and votes are taken. It’s not true that councilmembers always come to such meetings with their minds already made up, as some citizens and members of the press seem to think. So, it is important not only that these discussions take place, but that they be conducted in ways that promote the best possible exchange of information and ideas.

To this end, one simple but effective technique designed to improve this process was suggested by Ann Macfarlane, one of MRSC’s long-time Council/Commission Advisors, in her 2009 column, “Using the Round Robin Method for Efficient Council Meetings.” Ann’s column contains some sage advice for local legislative bodies interested in improving both the efficiency and the quality of their meetings. In it she argues that the “round robin method” for council deliberation contained in Roberts Rules of Order is one of the best ways to promote a “fair and judicious discussion of issues in which each member has an equal opportunity to participate.” Of course, local government advisory boards and commissions can also benefit from this type of discussion format.

In a round robin format, each council or board member participating in key policy discussions is given the opportunity to speak once, going around the table, before anyone can speak a second time. While this may seem like a minor procedural issue, anyone who has spent any amount of time participating on a council, board, or commission knows that who speaks, when, and for how long, can often have profound impacts on the outcomes of many important policy discussions. The round robin format seeks to level the playing field a bit by ensuring that all council and board members have the opportunity and, in fact, are prompted to weigh in on particular issues.

Councils or boards that have no rules of procedure or that do not pay attention to the details of how their meetings are conducted are more prone to falling into habits and routines that can reduce their effectiveness as decision-making bodies. How many times have you been at a meeting where one or two members dominate the discussion, either because they are always the ones who speak up first or because they feel compelled to answer every challenge to their point of view? Members don’t have to be rude or inconsiderate to end up dominating the discussion. They may just be enthusiastic, which, unfortunately, can have the same negative impact. In either case, to the extent that other members who have valuable opinions to share become less inclined or able to add their thoughts to the mix, the quality of the discussion and ultimately the decision itself can suffer. Then there are situations where, for whatever reasons, some members may just be reluctant to jump in and offer their opinions. Sometimes this is because they may feel that they are not as well-informed as they should be on an issue, or perhaps because they are concerned that their opinion will be rejected by the rest of the group, or may be unpopular with a wider audience.  Ironically, when called upon, these same individuals often end up making key contributions to the overall discussion.

In my experience as a member of the city of Kirkland’s Planning Commission for the past eight years, including a year as the chair, I know that we make our best decisions when all our members have taken the opportunity to weigh in on whatever issue is before us. When, on the other hand, we have just one or two members who dominate the discussion, or where, for whatever reasons, some members are reluctant to offer their own point of view, then we become less effective. Particularly in our role as an advisory body to the city council, it is always more helpful to have a thorough discussion of the issues that will, in turn,  provide a stronger record of our deliberations for the benefit of the city council as they go on to make their final policy decisions.

To be effective, councils and boards should conduct their meetings in ways that promote the fullest discussion of the issues with the broadest possible participation by all of the council or board members. One of the simplest ways to ensure that this takes place is to make use of the round robin discussion format. I’m not suggesting that this approach is necessary for every single discussion. It is intended simply as a tool. Experienced mayors and board chairs know when their council or board will benefit most from a more structured discussion format.

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Photo of Byron Katsuyama

About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.