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Do we really need a meeting?

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My-oh-my, we policy-makers do love meetings. And rightly so. They are a great way to bring people in, build consensus and seek challenge. But have we thought deeply enough about why we are meeting?

I hope this blog might inspire you to change the way you think about and design your meetings, as we share some of our latest thinking.

Why are we having the meeting?

When recently trying to make sense of a couple of meeting requests, we found it helpful to think of a meeting as an opportunity to either inform, decide, convince, involve, discover or challenge. Of course, these aren’t exclusive and you might want to use more than one of these for a meeting. But considering these in advance might start to change how you design your meeting and what you get out of it. 

Do you want to inform? This kind of meeting is about providing participants with evidence to inform their subsequent action. In this case, it’s worth thinking about how to structure the session for maximum evidence absorption. Presentations are great, as are evidence cards.

Do you want to decide? This is the space to reach an agreement from a number of options. (If you already know which option you want to be agreed, please see ‘convince’ below). If you are genuinely undecided, try showing participants the evidence, as above, and then using tools like ‘dot-voting’ to elicit preferences. That said, it's important to be aware of the problems with dot-voting too.

Do you want to convince? Always the most popular type of meeting, this is where you know what you want to do and all you need is others’ ‘buy-in’. One thing is for sure, this is not the right place for a facilitated workshop as participants will figure out quite quickly that they are being led. Sometimes it’s best to avoid the meeting altogether and just have a coffee with the main interested parties.

Do you want to involve? You might want to seek views and input by using a consultative and participatory meeting design, but the final decision will sit outside the room. This will be for good reasons if the attendees are only one part of the system. In which case, be honest that no decisions will be made, but make sure you reach a point of synthesis.

Do you want to discover? This is the meeting of choice for the curious policy-maker. Are you looking for insight on how someone else sees a problem? Perhaps you are on the lookout for new evidence, or want to find out what others are doing in the system? If this is the case, a 1:1 research interview or some form of open-ended method (like a journey map) might be best, examples on the Open Policy Making Toolkit.

Do you want to be challenged? This covers a good proportion of boards and steering groups. They are the classic way we hold each other to account in the modern workplace, by bringing together a group of people and letting them scrutinise ideas. We want to feel that our idea has been subject to ‘the right’ level of challenge. It’s helpful to have a chair person in these meetings.

Increasingly, we are seeing teams seek extra challenge from outside perspectives. A good read here is Matthew Syed’s ‘Rebel Ideas’ and the emerging field of diversity science. The book argues that diverse groups have better ideas. Another good read is Sanjan’s blog series on busting behavioural biases in policy. We’d love to hear your examples of setting up opportunities and safe spaces to challenge ideas.

Who do you want to include?

It’s critical that all meetings start with the question of inclusion, lest you will inadvertently exclude people. There’s more information online about ‘inclusive design’ than I can possibly do justice to here, but we previously shared some of our thinking on designing workshops for everyone and continue to learn with each project we do. 

Want to make your meetings better?

Have you tried:

  • Putting aside time at the start of a meeting for attendees to sit in silence to read the evidence or meeting paper. I’m seeking this far more regularly, particularly as our ‘always-on’ culture eats into our time to read the papers. 
  • Arranging meetings for different amounts of time. Why are meetings always an hour? Try 50 minutes, or even 25. You’ll be amazed at our innate ability to make a conversation last for as long as it is scheduled. 
  • Introducing each section of the meeting with the questions we need to answer at that stage. This also gives people the opportunity to be there for the bits that are most relevant to them.
  • Facilitating in pairs. Have one facilitator focus on including everyone and asking questions, with the other taking notes and capturing insight and detail. It’s hard to do both at the same time, so you might be surprised by how much more you capture. 
  • Embracing some level of conflict. Some people quite like the ability to contest an issue. It’s not necessarily always a bad thing.
  • Helping people emotionally come into the room. It’s important for attendees to connect to the meeting’s purpose, to temporarily equalise participants and provide a sense of safety. Try using 'hopes and fears', also on the Open Policy Making Toolkit.
  • Using ‘Policy Lab in a Day’. If you have the luxury of time and a tricky issue to tackle this could help you get the best out of the people in the room.

And finally...

If you’re on the way home after a frustrating meeting, try listening to this fascinating podcast: Freakonomics radio: How to make meetings less terrible. It contains some handy tips and tricks that inspired this blog. And as the podcast reminded me, a well-done meeting can give participants a ‘shared memory‘ of collaborative working. This is the essential basis for making progress together.

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  1. Comment by MD posted on

    Thank you for posting Vasant, good read.

  2. Comment by Andy Tyack posted on

    Really interesting read. Thanks Vasant.


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