11 ADVISORY COMMITTEE CHALLENGES & HOW TO OVERCOME THEM

Advisory committees and reference groups - tips and challenges

Advisory committees – we love them and we hate them – and we can’t stop setting them up. They're possibly the number one method of engagement in Australia.

Advisory committees have become a standard way of operating.  Almost every time a council or government agency has a big issue to resolve they set up an advisory committee - whether it's called a Ministerial Advisory Committee,  a Community Reference Group, or by any other name.  They can be short term or provide advice for years and, typically, they comprise either eminent people (known experts in the field) and/or stakeholder groups (known people working on the particular issue).

When used effectively, these groups can provide an opportunity to gather local knowledge and input, test ideas and proposals and improve communication and relationships, particularly with ‘noisy’ stakeholders.  

They are not, however, good substitutes for a comprehensive engagement approach, and should never be used in isolation, because members are unlikely to bring a truly diverse range of views to the table or to fully represent the broader community or all stakeholders.   In fact, when used improperly and/or run poorly, they can create more risk than reward.


If your organisation already has a committee in place, or if you have decided it is worthwhile and appropriate to establish one, the tips below will help you to ensure that both organisation and group benefits from the experience.

 


 1. LACK OF DIVERSE VOICES IN THE ROOM & COMMUNITY SEGMENTS MISSED

The problem: 

Often, only known stakeholders will respond to an EOI.  These stakeholders tend to be people who hold particularly strong views about the topic and/or who have been disaffected by the policies or programs of your organisation.  

It's important that these ‘known’ stakeholders are engaged.  However, they often don’t reflect a full range of views.

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How to address it: 

Alternative recruitment approaches that can increase the diversity of viewpoints expressed in your group include:

  1. Appoint people that match your stakeholder analysis.  This allows you to identify the full range of people with a stake in the topic and then recruit members based on specific categories. 
  2. Conduct a random selection process using stratified random sampling (recruiting unknown people who fit into identified categories) to bring fresh eyes to (and attract people without a vested interest in) the topic.

Additionally, consider using a 'selection group' that includes a few key stakeholders and oversees formation of the committee.  This ensures transparency and reduces criticism about who is ultimately selected. 


2. DISCONNECTED DECISION MAKERS AND A LACK OF TRUST

The problem:

The relationship between the committee and decision makers is critical.  A lack of decision maker involvement can cause a disconnect that impacts on the trust between both parties, causing potential risks to the very relationship you are trying to nurture.

Advisory committees challenges top tips

How to address it:

There are a range of ways that decision makers can be involved in the process.  Some committees are chaired by a decision maker (offering a direct reporting line between them and the broader decision making group). 

This approach has its pros and cons, and success depends on that individual's chairing skills and their ability to keep the group focused,  particularly if they fear conflict with stakeholders. One option is to let committee members write their own reports (increasing transparency, ownership and buy-in). 

The committee (or representatives of it) then personally deliver and present these reports to the decision makers.  This highlights the gravity of the report to the decision makers and increases committee member trust in the integrity of the process.

 


3. A CONFUSED, FRUSTRATED OR DIRECTIONLESS COMMITTEE

The problem:

Terms of reference are often written in very general, vague or government-style language that is open to interpretation. 

Additionally, many committees are unclear on what problem they are advising on/resolving, what level of influence they will have over the issue and how their input will be used.

This can result in unrealistic expectations and a lack of direction.  It can also cause the committee to provide advice that isn't aligned to the information the organisation is seeking, wasting everyone’s time.

How to address it:

Develop clear, concise terms of reference and clearly communicate to the committee what problem they are being asked to address, what level of influence they will have and how their input will be used. 

Ensure that decision makers are also clear on and have agreed to these parameters.  Tightness is needed, so avoid vagueness wherever possible.

Additionally, create a high level (yet flexible) roadmap that guides the committee's activities and build in regular reviews to ensure the group is on track and fulfilling or answering its 'remit'.


4. A LACK OF REAL INFLUENCE

How to address it:

Committees require a real opportunity to influence an issue, process or decision in order for them to operate effectively and for relationships between members and the organisation to be nurtured.  Only topics that the committee can have a real influence over should be on the agenda.

The problem: 

A lack of real influence leads to an ineffective committee. 

Disappointment, disengagement and perceptions of a tokenistic or non-transparent process can ensue, causing tension between the committee and the organisation.


5. MISMANAGED OR UNADDRESSED CONFLICT OR TENSION 

The problem: 

Conflict or tension between members is seen as a problem to solve, or issues are just covered up and ignored.  The result is incomplete discussions and superficial exploration of information and evidence. 

MosaicLab advisory committees tips and ideas for managing conflict

How to address it: 

Approach conflict as a necessary and important part of solving the problems at hand.  Plan for conflict, and allow tensions to surface early. 

Provide adequate information, data and evidence so the group can help to uncover the complexities of the problem (rather than focusing on simplistic, polarised viewpoints). 

An experienced, independent facilitator will help to ensure these conversations are navigated successfully. 


6. INFORMATION OVERLOAD & NO TIME TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE AT HAND

How to address it:

Meetings should not be used for information sharing (information should be sent through prior to the meeting as written material).  If information must be shared during the meeting, use effective techniques -presentations should be avoided at all costs! 

This issue is greatly assisted via the use of a facilitator (see challenge 6 below), who can use techniques such as small group discussions.  These activities will help to give everyone time to speak and allow members to grapple with more ideas in less time. 

The problem:

Often committees spend so much time on receiving information that they don’t get enough time to discuss the topic at hand. 

Meetings can be too short or too rigid (strictly run under standard meeting rules), so there is no capacity to identify everyone's ideas and  weigh up the pros and cons of options.  

 


7. POORLY CHAIRED MEETINGS (RESULTING IN AN ARRAY OF ISSUES)

The problem:

A poorly chaired or facilitated committee can result in:

  • Some voices being drowned out and precious air time dominated by one or two members
  • A group getting stuck on certain issues – unable to gain traction or move forward
  • Participation rates reducing because members feel uncomfortable or unheard
  • Reduced quality of discussion and outputs
  • Time not being used efficiently or effectively
  • Perceptions that the process is not independent or transparent (when run by the lead organisation or decision maker)

How to address it:

Investing in an independent facilitator with experience is highly beneficial.   A facilitator will ensure that discussions are enhanced via guidelines that ensure openness, listening, and airing of diverse opinions and that help to build trust and respect between all participants.

ADvisory committees facilitators consultants - chair

8. OUTRAGE OR EMOTION HAS THE GROUP STUCK

The problem: 

Committee members are outraged or emotional about the organisation’s past decisions, issues or behaviour and there is a lack of trust.

How to address it:

The experiences and concerns of group members as well as the past mistakes made by the organisation need to be acknowledged up front. 

Acknowledging and addressing issues and conflict is an important part of working with it successfully.  An experienced facilitator can greatly assist the group to work through these blocks. 


9. TUNNEL VISION PREVENTS THE COMMITTEE FROM FULFILLING ITS PURPOSE

The problem:

Committee members begin to think their view is the only view and the extension role they play getting information out and in from their respective networks is forgotten.

Advisory committees how to run and facilitate tips

How to address it: 

Clarify roles in the terms of reference, and ensure that this important information flow is addressed ‘front and centre’ at the start and end of each meeting. 

Also, give committee members a role in a wider engagement process, actively building this process into the ‘DNA’ of the committee. 

For example, you could run a regular, broad scale community session for two way information, knowledge and idea sharing between community and the committee. 


10. RIGID PROCESSES RESULT IN POOR OUTPUTS

How to address it: 

Sessions designed and tailored to the group’s needs are often more effective and result in a more engaged committee that produces better quality outputs. 

Working with your committee to develop agendas and/or ensuring agendas are flexible enough to allow for important conversations to happen as needed, means that vital ideas and issues are not missed. 

The problem: 

Rigid, organisation-led agendas leave committee members disengaged, lower the quality of group outputs and cause important ideas and conversations to be missed.


11.  POOR BEHAVIOUR AND INTERNAL ISSUES CAUSE BLOCKS

The problem:

Members of the group behave badly and show a lack of respect for one another, continuing to be polarised or entrenched around the issue or dilemma. 

Advisory committees and reference groups - how to set up and manage

How to address it: 

Co-design a set of agreed guidelines with the group and evaluate against these behaviours a the end of each session - the chair or facilitator will need to call out any unacceptable behaviour in line with these guidelines. 

It can also be useful to build some capacity within the group so members have the ability respectfully question each others views and start to moderate each other and themselves. 

 Critical thinking techniques or skills in identifying biases, for example, can assist in encouraging positive group dynamics. 

MosaicLab's 'do's and don'ts of group decision making' video is also a handy resource for use in a group setting. 


A FINAL, IMPORTANT TIP 

It's important to remember that advisory committees are just one form of engagement and there are numerous other techniques available.  So, our number one tip is to assess whether an advisory committee is really what you need or whether there are other, more effective options available. 

 

NEED ADVISORY COMMITTEE ASSISTANCE? 

If you need help determining whether an advisory committee is right for your project/issue or if you would like to explore other possible methods of engagement, MosaicLab can help.  We're also available to provide you with an experienced facilitator that can help to ensure your existing committee is as effective as possible.   Get in touch with us here. 

 

COMPREHENSIVE ADVISORY COMMITTEE RESOURCE IN DEVELOPMENT

Stay tuned - MosaicLab is currently developing a comprehensive resource for setting up, managing and getting the most out of advisory committees. Want to be notified when it's ready? Subscribe to 'the Discussion' - our monthly e-newsletter - and get news, tips, ideas, free resources and more delivered directly to your inbox.