Use Technology to Manage City Council Board Packets

Lena Eisenstein

Imagine that Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) held a monthly meeting with Deputy Barney Fife, County Clerk Howard Sprague and Mayor Roy Stoner – as well as Mayberry’s treasurer, fire chief, dog catcher and school superintendent. As the City Council, they conducted all of the needed business for the town. What visual images come to mind of the meeting preparations? The meeting itself?

We probably have a similar image in mind: Before each meeting, a harried secretary would update Andy’s packet with updates. She would collect Andy’s bulky binder; mimeograph the minutes, agenda and appendices; file each page behind the appropriate divider; and return it to Andy’s office in the jailhouse. She would repeat this process for every member of the board. Lucky for her, school boards don’t have branch offices in Singapore! At a multinational corporation, she’d have to pack each one up to mail it to far-flung offices. The meeting would lob along at a snail’s pace from the oral roll call to the sleepy adjournment. Only a blurry-minded rampage by Otis Campbell would break up the tedium – and not in a good way.

Since then, computers have made us more informed shoppers, more productive widget-makers, better-connected global citizens and faster typists. Why does a Parks and Recreation meeting in today’s Pawnee, Indiana, feel so much like the Mayfield City Council that we’ve imagined? It would seem that only the photocopier has changed. Board software and portals could be making your city council leaner, faster, smarter and greener.

Brass Tacks: The Packet

Today that secretary is an administrative assistant who may work only part-time in a building that is more George Jetson than Andy Taylor. The technology that orchestrated the Arab Spring is at her disposal. Has her job description changed? Is the meeting any smarter than it was? Software and portals can make searchable board packets faster to produce, easier to edit, and kinder to the planet. Links in the document bring needed references to councilors’ fingertips, and templates generate colorful, robust illustrations.

Think about what goes into your board packet: the agenda, past minutes, budgets, project timetables, supporting documents, policies and more. A simple board portal can make these documents astronomically better than their paper-based cousins:

  • Between meetings, some documents will need to pass through an approval tree in a specific sequence. The entire process is managed automatically, eliminating cluttered inboxes and administrative headaches altogether.
  • Documents concerning project management or strategic plans require visual timelines. Built-in templates make it a snap to generate customized charts that put to shame the clumsy counterparts that most of us can generate on MS Word – or even MS Excel.
  • Unlike paper-based counterparts, the agenda can include links to supporting articles or files.
  • Like the binder, the portal includes an archive that stores historical documents for reference. (Didn’t we vote on that zoning ordinance last February?)

Each council member has retrieved the new materials from the board portal, where the administrative assistant has found a one-stop shop for papers that everybody shares at once. Goodbye, photocopies. Goodbye, postage. Goodbye, six-hour road race to substitute newly revised pages in all of the binders. Goodbye, paper mills turning forests into deserts. The document storage feature keeps board materials current and safe.

  • Unlike emailed materials, the document storage contains only the latest version of edited documents – after the software facilitated asynchronous editing by disparate collaborators: Over a matter of weeks, numerous contributors leave input in one central spot. The portal has tracked all of the versions. Role-based permissions give a sole editor the authority to submit the final documents that consolidate those inputs. A synchronous editing feature could even have them working on the same draft, with others’ revisions visible in the margins.
  • The materials are perfectly secure, as the portal offers tighter controls than other file-storage options on the market. Adding to the security and ease, no paper copies are left lying around.

Result: Better Meetings

With these materials in front of them, council members can find anything they may need in the course of the meeting. But that’s not all. A strong board portal can also:

  • Record attendance.
  • Record votes, count them instantaneously, and post results.
  • Collate comments and tally results of public polls taken since the last meeting.
  • Allow each board member to take notes in a personalized version of the shared documents. In a virtual Post-it note, the police chief could remind herself to comment: “Factor in overtime pay, not the standard scale” when the agenda gets to an item on security for a visiting dignitary.
  • Create timelines for tasks assigned for various projects. Some chairs delegate duties in the course of the meeting deliberations; others assign duties at the close of the meeting. Either way, task-management software can instantly convert the steps for each project into an at-a-glance format that shows deadlines and responsible parties.
  • Offer remote access. Members who are out of town can still attend the meeting remotely.

After the meeting, the recording secretary can convert his notes into official minutes and post them on the town’s website with a single keystroke. Signatures needed on the minutes – or any other material – can be solicited without making midnight car rides to members’ homes with folders full of pages with sticky arrows reminding members: “Sign here!”

You may be thinking: “You don’t know my city council!” Baby boomers on the council may still want all or some of their material in hard copy. Worse, those boomers are apt to hold the top leadership spots.

Before you get to a fully paperless council meeting, you can at least enjoy council meetings with less paper. The conversion may be faster than you think. Old-timers are coming around. Nothing converts them quicker than a business trip that lets them attend the meeting virtually or via conference call. Try lugging a traditional 10-pound board packet through airports and spreading out the papers on a hotel bed. A four-pound laptop starts to look pretty good. They can access all of the meeting materials from any device, even a phone.

Why Wait?

City council and other municipal entities can now benefit from technological advances just as retailers, researchers, romancers and revolutionaries have. With automated packets, your city council can work smarter, not harder. The result will be decisions based on more comprehensive knowledge of relevant facts by councils that are less overtaxed, tired and bored. You’ll save labor. You’ll save trees. You’ll save postage.

Will you miss the good old days? Consider: Never again will you face delays as materials circulate from office to office for needed signatures. Never again will you face an email inbox cluttered with multiple versions of documents by different authors. And never again will you miss a crucial vote because you had to be out of town. If that sounds like good riddance, join the tens of thousands of towns already using board portals and software to bring their council meetings out of the Dark Ages.

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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.