Local government meeting etiquette and the laptop

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I have a colleague who brings his laptop to meetings. He claims he is trying to be paperless, and whilst I am happy to stroke my chin and claim that ‘it will never last’ as he lugs his enormous council issued laptop around the place, at least he is trying.

However, the mere fact of him having his laptop in meetings, and the fact that many councils are moving towards having laptops rather than desktops for their staff, raises a number of ‘meeting etiquette’ questions that we need to de-bunk.

Sitting there typing away in a meeting for some reason seems a little rude but is it any worse than sitting there taking notes on a piece of paper? Well, of course not.

But whilst it is fine to take notes on a laptop what if he uses it for other reasons?

In a meeting last week the discussion turned to a Government announcement and as quick as a flash there was a tap tap tapping in the corner and my colleague had the relevant document on his screen and started reading it out. Although impressed, one of my older colleagues did mutter as we left that:

‘I wonder if that’s what he spends the whole meeting doing?’

Now, let’s move past the fact that what he actually did was damn helpful to the progress of the meeting; what if he did spend every meeting surfing the internet, checking his e-mails and generally catching up on other work? Is this a problem?

There are two inter-related issues here:

  1. Is the member of staff paying attention?
  2. Is the member of staff contributing at the appropriate moments?

If those two criteria are met does it matter? And even if they don’t is the laptop the problem?

Of course not; a laptop is only as distracting as the person is distracted. And bearing in mind how distracted the average manager is by his or her blackberry (and/or the fly circling the room) I’m not sure a computer is going to make any difference at all. Indeed, if other work can be completed in the meeting it might even make people more effective.

Despite this, there is one issue we need to be aware of. A room full of laptop users can be a little anti-social. Instead of looking at each other a room full of laptop users might be a problem as we all hide behind our screens (especially if they are large council issues laptop screens!). Small people especially can be lost behind a sea of screens.

Increasingly, councils will be trying to issue their staff with more flexible IT equipment; from thin client machines to laptops to tablets to slates. All of the final three can be totally movable and will enable staff to come to meetings with their computers, contribute and do so without printing out the endless papers that accompany the average council meeting.

One other thing; where council managers are still a bit suspicious of the meeting laptop; I’d remind them that in a year or two this will seem normal and the people with the piles of paper are going to be the strange ones.

After all, the etiquette is simple (if constantly changing); we just need to get the technology in the council first!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com


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3 Comments on “Local government meeting etiquette and the laptop”

  1. John McPherson Says:

    I fear the point has been missed here. As so often with local government change, we’re trying to work the way we’ve always worked, despite the opportunity on offer. Laptops mean we can work differently, so this piece should have been about how to use mobile technology to have fewer, more effective, meetings rather than how to use a laptop instead of an A4 book for doodling.

  2. Tom Phillips Says:

    This item seems a bit “dated”. Not only is this not a new phenomenon, but things like use of personal iPads have meant that you are very unlikely to go to meetings now and find someone not doing what this article describes. People have not been waiting for work provided kit. I was using a Psion 5 in meetings in about 1997 to jot notes and reduce paper. And what of the authorities who have bought iPads and Kindles for their people? A minority still, sure, but not new news.

    The article seems also to have ignored the whole thing about social media use from meetings too. That, plus its reference to “slates” really makes me wonder whether it was penned quite some time ago?

  3. Ed Hammond Says:

    Tom – you must live in some bizarro parallel local government to me then, because it’s a picture I recognise all too well. I used to do all-paper despatches to councillors and regularly organised meetings where agendas were circulated in hard copy only – and this is only golng back a few years.

    Back in 2005 when I was a committee officer, I used to assistant clerk full council meetings, and part of my job was operating the “enunciator”, which was a small video camera that had a hard-wire link to a b/w portable TV in the members’ reception room. In front of the camera was a little box with a slot where I would drop in little tabs with the title of the agenda item under discussion typed on them.

    At the same authority, at the same time, the committee office had a small typing pool, as there were at least three members of staff who couldn’t use a computer.

    I think that WLLG has previously blogged on social media in council meetings. This is something that many have commented upon (and it goes beyond councils – the House of Commons finally agreed the other week that tweeting in the chamber should continue). We (the Centre for Public Scrutiny) published a report on the use of social media last year called “Cannot find server”.

    This is obviously a slightly different matter to the use of technology in officer meetings, which, certainly in my experience remains unusual (to the extent that whenever I am in a meeting with somebody using a laptop, the laptop-user tends to look a bit sheepish and everyone else in the room makes slightly sarky comments).

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