Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks

LITA board blogging: why they got it wrong about the secretary role

June 28th, 2012 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

As I do, I went to both LITA board meetings, and ended up with pages of notes. And I could, if you like, blog some of the actual content of the meetings. But it turns out the blog post that’s been writing itself in my head this last day has centered entirely on this one sentence out of all those pages of notes:

“Bylaws doesn’t see a need for a secretary, LITA does a sufficient job handling minutes.”

I disagree strenuously.

For context: at Midwinter, the Board discussed replacing one or two of the Director-at-Large positions with secretary and/or treasurer roles. Some sort of more concrete proposal was to be developed (I haven’t seen it) and sent to the Bylaws committee, as any such change would implicate the bylaws. So the committee was reporting out. And yes, they do think LITA should do something about the treasurer role, and they’re right. They’re just wrong about the secretary.

So, why?

Point one: the handling of minutes

I was about to say “there are some good things about the handling of minutes; they’re routinely available in the Connect site”. And then it took me a really long time to find any actual minutes in the Connect site, and I couldn’t find any kind of page that collated just the minutes. So I take that back. But you can at least read some of them.

And the minutes are actually better than I’d remembered in terms of recording something about the content of the discussions, the context of the decisions. I don’t think minutes should be transcripts (…for all that my personal notes sometimes nearly are), but I do think they should record enough of the why to help future members (not just board members!) get up to speed. I find Connect incredibly useful as a repository of institutional knowledge, a way to rapidly spin up understanding of threads within the organization — this alone justifies working in it (or at least transferring documents routinely to it) rather than in more user-friendly things like Google Docs, the value to posterity — so I’m glad the LITA minutes reflect some of that.

However, with the exception of motions to adjourn and the like, I think it has rarely been the case that all members of the board understand, and agree on, the text of the motions they happen to be voting on. That text isn’t made explicit in the meetings, and it’s not recorded adequately in the minutes thereafter. The minutes don’t adequately record, or make prominent, action items and responsible parties decided on during the meeting. There was at least one time this meeting when the Board was derailed for several minutes because they couldn’t agree on whether or when they had agreed to do a thing in the past, and the minutes didn’t suitably clarify this.

If the minutes don’t suffice for the Board to know what they agreed to do, they don’t suffice.

Point two: minutes are a diversion; here’s what it’s really about

OK, so I just buried the lede, but my jaw dropped when I heard adequate handling of minutes as the reason given for why Bylaws didn’t find the secretary role necessary.

Was…was that all they were considering? Seriously? I never saw the exact proposal (a fact which is about to become ironic in the context of this post) but I never imagined that was all that was on the table. If I’d realized, if it had even for a moment crossed my mind that that could be what anyone involved with the Board these last few years could construe a secretary as, I would have been making a whole lot of noise about this months ago. Because here’s what I’ve thought all along the secretary role has to be:

LITA needs a secretary to own the process of transparency.

Here’s what the LITA secretary in my head does:

Handle minutes. Yes, sure. But this means: stop the flow of the meeting where necessary to clarify the exact text of motions, and write it somewhere everyone can see it, before the votes are taken. And ensure that exact text makes it into the minutes. And ensure the minutes state, with clear words and clear layout, all the action items and their responsible parties.

Ensure that minutes and agendas are posted in a timely and transparent fashion. (I’ve ended up with a copy of the agenda at every board meeting I’ve attended, but often only because I have the privilege to IM board members, who email it to me during the meeting itself…This is really broken, y’all.) And when I say “posted” I don’t just mean “in a public post on Connect”; I mean in Connect, organized in a way that they are readily findable in the future, and cross-posted to LITAblog, LITA-L, @ALA_LITA, and whatever else you’ve got.

Publicize, not only the Board meetings at Annual and Midwinter, but the virtual meetings now happening (hooray!) between them. Encourage members to attend.

Ensure that, at least monthly, there are public, publicized updates on Board discussions. Some of those discussions are private — either necessarily, because they fall within ALA’s closed meetings exceptions, or due to the comfort levels of Board members (the open meeting policy does not cover working discussions in Connect, and LITA’s discussions of how exactly to apply this to itself have been lengthy and contentious, and remain unsettled). And I, personally — not speaking for any other LITA members and definitely not reflecting the (nonexistent) Board consensus — am totally OK with having private discussions plus regular reporting; I don’t need every single thing to be public. But there must be regular reporting — “Here are the issues under discussion. Here are some ideas on the table. Here are decisions we’re proposing or making. Here are the action items and responsible parties. Here’s the status of the loose ends.” There must. And it’s not going to happen without someone to own the process of transparency.

(Double benefit to monthly-ish reporting, really: allows members to be more included, and also gently insists the board actually get stuff done…Goodness knows I don’t accomplish things without deadlines.)

Oh, and while I’m at it, transparency works both ways; I think the secretary should also be a conduit to encourage the members to have more of a voice in LITA. Elicit their perspective on what the board should be doing. Their comment on the decisions being made.

So…yeah. In the context of the Board discussions these last few years, I just assumed all this was obvious. This is one of those situations where I shouldn’t assume things are obvious to everyone just because they’re obvious in my head, isn’t it? I’m completely blindsided and flabbergasted that the secretary role under discussion apparently extended only to taking the minutes.

The secretary isn’t there to take minutes. The secretary is there to take point on transparency. The secretary is there to get the members to hold the Board’s feet to the fire, to get the Board to matter to the members, to make it possible to stitch together the amazing membership and the actions of the Board into a coherent thing. The secretary is there to make the Board up its game.

Or, well. The secretary isn’t there. It is thus recommended.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Andromeda

    It’s possible the reason I thought the secretary role under discussion involved more than just minutes was that that was what was actually discussed: http://connect.ala.org/node/169528 (though quick searches don’t yield any follow-up on this, e.g. any position description actually drafted). Hat tip then-board-member Aaron Dobbs for posting thorough notes.