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Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas

Laird Schaub, Friday, January 25, 2008

Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas

I'm in Asheville this weekend, doing a CANBRIDGE series of workshops on cooperative group dynamics. This evening I presented key elements of consensus, and there's a new piece of theory that I've recently added to what I offer on this subject: how the agenda gets drafted for plenaries (meetings of the whole).
Group time is expensive. If you've got 20 in your group, a three-minute statement uses one hour of people time. So you want to minimize confusion about the agenda and make sure that all topics are queued up and ready to go. Here's my best thinking about how to do that:
Create a standing cmtee whose task it is to be the gatekeeper for plenary agendas. Caution #1: the composition of this cmtee may be delicate. It has to be large enough to be widely accessible to the group's membership; it has to be small enough to be able to function expeditiously. I'm think perhaps 3-4 people is the right number (that way, when someone is on vacation or sick, the cmtee can still function well). Caution #2: For this cmtee, don't simply ask for volunteers. The make-up of this group needs to be perceived as fairly balanced, to be well trusted.
Assuming you've selected a good representative group, their job is to vet any and all suggestions for what makes it to the plenary floor. Essentially they'll use three screens to do this. In sequence, they'll test for:

1. Is the topic plenary worthy? The cmtee should be acting on the group's behalf to make sure that all things coming forward are appropriate for whole group attention. That means the group will need to have a conversation about what's worth their time (so that the cmtee will have guidance about what the screen should be—you don't want them just making something up!). Hint: here are my suggestions about the kinds of things that might qualify:

o clarifying cmty values (both in general and how they are to be applied in a specific situation)
o establishing process agreements by which the cmty will operate
o determining mandates for cmtees that serve the plenary (as opposed to mandates for subcmtees, which will be determined by the cmtees they serve)
o relationships for neighbors, other organizations, and government
o changes to the cmty budget (excepting where that authority has been clearly delegated)
o evaluation of cmtees which serve the plenary
o membership process
o establishment of members' rights and responsibilities
o expulsion, or other involuntary changes to a member's rights and responsibilities
o anything for which there is no established cmtee or manager to handle it on behalf of the cmty (once it has been determined to be, in some sense, cmty business).
o court of last resort in cases where internal cmty disputes are not settled through other means

Note that it is not that unusual for some aspects of a topic to be plenary worthy and some aspects not to be. It's the gatekeepers' job to use discernment and help protect the plenary from inappropriate agendas. If something doesn't fit—in the Gatekeepers view—they should suggest where it should go instead (perhaps to a cmtee or manager with sufficient authority to deal with the issue at that level).

2. Is the topic mature enough? Has all the research you might reasonably anticipate being needed been done? Can it be posted sufficiently ahead of the mtg that everyone has a decent chance to look over the background materials? Does the presenter have their schtick together? Is the objective for the plenary focus clear?

3. What is the priority of this topic relative to others that have passed the first two screens? That is, there may be more topcis that are worthya dn mature than can be done in the time available for the next pkenary. Don't try to shoehorn a 3-hour agenda into a 90-minute mtg. Pick what's most important, most urgent, or been waiting the longest, and let the other topics wait for another mtg.

Note that the gatekeepers should not approach their job as the Agenda Police. Rather they should be problem solvers, helping members and cmtees to think creatively about what is a good use of plenary time, and what will help them get their needs met. They are seeking the intersection of the group's needs and those of the people petitioning for time on the plenary floor.
If there's dissatisfaction with the gatekeepers decision, there should be a right of appeal whereby unsuccessful petitioners can get plenary time to make a pitch for why they think their issue should come before the whole group and ovetunr the gatekeepers assessment. Note: this is not an opportunity for an end run to discus the topic; it's a chance to make one last attempt to have cmty support for topci about the issue at a later date. Don't confuse the two.
Once they crafted a draft agenda, the gatekeepers should turn their work over to the Facilitation Team for determining who should run the mtg, in what order topics should appear, and with what format they should be addressed. I'll discuss how the Facilitation Team should approach their work in my next blog

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