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.
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.
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.
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.