The Meeting pp 207-242 | Cite as

Decisions and Power

The Committee Meeting and the Board Meeting
  • Helen B. Schwartzman


In the West, everyone ridicules and disparages committees. In many ways, committees have come to symbolize what Americans and Westerns dislike most about meetings: inefficiency, cumbersome procedures, unfruitful discussions, and so forth. In his excellent book, Government by Committee (1955), K. C. Wheare examines the role of committees in the machinery of the British government. He suggests that their prevalence in the government must be examined as he cites Winston Churchill’s complaint during a moment of exasperation during World War II as he exclaimed: “We are overrun by them [committees], like the Australians were by the rabbits” (p. 1). In examining the phenomenon of “government by committee,” Wheare demonstrates the general approach that researchers have taken toward meetings and meeting groups, such as committees and boards. First, he classifies these groups based on the tasks that they are asked to perform, and so he compares and contrasts committees to advise (e.g., panels, councils, working parties), committees to inquire (e.g., royal commissions, select committees of the House of Commons, departmental and interdepartmental committees), committees to negotiate (e.g, committees engaged in settling questions of hours of labor, wage rates, and conditions of work in central or local government service), committees to legislate (e.g., standing committees of the House of Commons), committees to administer (e.g., committees used by local authorities of the country), committees to scrutinize and control (e.g., select committees of the House of Commons—of Public Accounts, on Estimates, and on Statutory Instruments) (p. 2). In the case of each of these six different types of committees, Wheare examines the effectiveness of the committee based on whether or not they accomplish their designated task, which in general means whether or not they “decide something”:

If we are to judge whether a committee is doing its work well, we must have in our minds certain criteria of success, which we must attempt to formulate in advance, however, vaguely. In the first place it can be said that it is the job of a committee to come to a conclusion, to decide something. Its decision may be a finding of fact or a recommendation to its parent body or an administrative order or an appointment or a proposal to defer consideration. Whatever its function, however, it is its job to take a decision upon the matter before it. If it fails to do that, then it is not doing its work. It may seem absurd to assert so self-evident a proposition, but it has to be asserted because committees have been known to fail to perform this task. (p. 10)


Executive Director Board Member Executive Committee Leader Behavior Social Form 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Helen B. Schwartzman
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and Center for Urban Affairs and Policy ResearchNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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