ARE you paying attention? By the end of this paragraph, 47 per cent of you will have switched off. How the expert from Imperial College Business School was able — as part of Mitchell on Meetings (Radio 4, Saturdays) — to quantify our inattention was not explained. The point is that we spend a significant proportion of our time in meetings dreaming of being somewhere else and offering nothing to the discussion. The same professor has put a figure on the money wasted: half a trillion US dollars. If that doesn’t wake you from your daydream, nothing will.
It is all part of what our affable guide, the comedian David Mitchell, calls the “meeting-isation of society”. This ungainly coinage captures the process by which an organisation, in a well-meaning attempt to democratise the workplace, allows a widening number of participants to have their say. A meeting does not finish when everything that needs to be said has been said, but when everyone has said it.
The trend is seen as much at Cabinet as at parish-council level: we heard from a former Cabinet minister, Sir David Lidington, on how the numbers around the table have increased as a means of extending patronage as widely as possible, while all the real business now takes place elsewhere.
So, what is the answer to meeting-creep? Perhaps we should follow the lead of the Privy Council, and hold all meetings standing up. But all this presupposes that meetings are intended as a means of achieving something. If one were to adopt the radical anthropological view that meetings are really a means of negotiating social relationships, then we should relax, switch off, and let the agenda roll by.
Nevertheless, somebody has occasionally to take decisions. In Analysis: The fine art of decision-making (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Margaret Heffernan talked to politicians and chief executives about how to do it, and what to do if you cock it up. Jonathan Powell, a former Downing Street Chief of Staff, preferred the conviction-led Thatcher and Blair to the pros-and-cons approach of Major.
Most frustrating are the procrastinators, keeping their options open when the options are in fact closing down fast, and, most frightening, the algorithms that are routinely employed to make decisions for organisations that do not dare to take the responsibility themselves. The example quoted was of New York schools that outsourced their teacher assessment and promotion processes to a computer. What could possibly go wrong?
It was Sir Oliver Letwin who got to the heart of the matter. In a public sphere that is subject to increasingly intense scrutiny, and where our version of liberal democracy requires maximum accountability, is successful decision-making being hindered? It is not, for instance, possible now for politicians to change their minds in a dignified manner. The U-turn is regarded as one of the most shameful decisions in politics, when it should be celebrated as a demonstration of honesty and pragmatism.