3 Meeting 3 Meeting


This [the party group meeting] is where the more significant reports are brought forward by officers from all departments so the whole group can have an input prior to the respective Convener’s meeting. A number of private reports were discussed and amended by [the] group. It also gives the group leadership the opportunity to update the rest of the group on issues and provides an opportunity for any member to raise any issue relating to the group or their role.

Local councillor, in Richard Freeman, ‘The role of the councillor’, 2019

The meeting might be read as a performance in the very particular sense that it has been prepared, if not rehearsed in a ‘pre-meeting’. This takes place offstage if not backstage, when a subset of participants meets to agree a position and a way of proceeding in advance of a larger, usually more formal meeting. The irony, of course, is that backstage is but another meeting.

On the evening preceding the council meeting, the groups of both parties separately considered the formal agenda and decided on their tactics. Neither knew precisely what the other intended to do, but they had faced one another often enough to make certain shrewd guesses… [In the council meeting] the behaviour of the council members… varied from utter silence to uproar, from joking to exaggerated allegation, and from rapt attention to irrelevant interjections: all these were reactions to the public nature of the occasion.

Paul Spencer, ‘Party politics and the processes of local democracy’, 1971

The work of the pre-meeting, it seems, is to keep the politics out of the meeting, which nevertheless retains its function as the ostensible performance of deliberation and decision-making. It is to avoid conflict, or more precisely to generate and organize specific forms of conflict; it is to (try to) control the definition of the situation the meeting might make. It is a way of avoiding the embarrassment of uncertainty or even failure. The subsequent council meeting is not a public meeting but it may well be a meeting held in public: it is an occasion for councillors to act out, before an audience of citizens, the ways in which they represent them.

In 1994, the French Foreign Minister wrote an aide-memoire to the UN Secretary-General complaining that ‘informal consultations have become the Council’s characteristic working method, while public meetings, originally the norm, are increasingly rare and increasingly devoid of content: everyone knows that when the Council goes into public meeting everything has been decided in advance’.

Sherif Elgebeily, The Rule of Law in the United Nations Security Council Decision-Making Process, 2017


Lisa, Lorna, Sean and Ana are planning a meeting. Sean is a senior council official, and the others are engagement and participation practitioners, Lisa and Lorna working for the council, and Ana for an environmental organisation. The meeting is meant to bring local public service and third sector organisations together, to develop a shared commitment to collaborative governance. Oliver, a sociologist, is there with them, working out what it is they’re trying to work out: he calls it ‘scripting’.

Lisa and her colleagues want the meeting to go well, of course: they think about who’s to be invited, what is at issue and what isn’t, who’s to speak and when, in what terms the topic and discussion should be framed, how long the meeting should last, how the room is to be arranged. They are designing or, in a theatrical sense, ‘producing’ their meeting: imagining a need and an occasion for it, as well as a particular mood, content and purpose. ‘Scripting, therefore, assembles time (eg pacing, opportunity), space and dynamics (eg layouts, formats), characters (eg individuals, groups, places), strategies and tactics (eg exposing participants to diverse others), materials and artefacts (eg tablecloth, facilitation tools), narratives and frames (eg collaborative governance as avant-garde policy) and enactments (eg facilitating, orchestrating). To the extent that, in Foucault’s formulation, to govern is ‘to structure the possible field of action of others’, this scripting is political work.

Even if we do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, there is that sense that this is a member-led endeavour, not one that is driven by the staff and so it’s only right that when you ask that question, the staff are not visible. There’d be something wrong if we were visible.

Clerk, House of Commons, in Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, 2020

The idea of ‘scripting’ gives valuable clues as to how to read what is going on. Yet note that there is no script as such, no speech drafted on a page from which an actor will rehearse or read but something much more like a cinematic ‘treatment’. There can be no script, for that would be to usurp author-ity, to transfer agency too obviously and too completely from actor to producer and writer. It matters for the validity and legitimacy of the meeting and its outcome that its participants or actors are seen to be autonomous, however structured and organised – however scripted – the encounter.

Marc Geddes found clerks to committees spending much of their time in their respective committee offices, where the administrative work required to sustain the committee goes on. This work includes a weekly debrief, in which officials reflect on the progress or otherwise of the work of the committee itself. They are able to do so effectively, that is frankly and openly, to the extent that this is secluded space, a backstage area out of sight of the public event which is the committee meeting.


‘On the evening preceding the council meeting…’: Spencer, P (1971) ‘Party politics and the processes of local democracy in an English town council’, in Richards, A and Kuper, A (eds) Councils in Action, Cambridge Papers in Social Anthropology, Cambridge: Cambridge UP; p 187, p 189


‘informal consultations…’: in Elgebeily, S (2017) The Rule of Law in the United Nations Security Council Decision-Making Process. Turning the focus inwards, London: Routledge, [p ]

See Oliver Escobar (2015): ‘Scripting deliberative policy-making: dramaturgic policy, analysis and engagement know-how’, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice 17 (3) 269-285; ‘Scripting, therefore…’ is explained p 278; the Foucault reference is to Michel Foucault (1982) ‘The subject and power, Critical Inquiry 8 (4) 777-795, p 790

‘Even if we do the heavy lifting…’ appears in Geddes 2020 op cit, p 86